Number of women in Alaska Legislature reaches new high
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The number of women serving in the Alaska Legislature reached a new high Friday, a milestone hailed by current and former lawmakers who also see room for improvement in further diversifying the institution.
With the swearing in of the House’s newest member, Tiffany Zulkosky, the Alaska Legislature now has 19 women. According to Legislative Research Services, that is the highest number of women who have served in any one Legislature since Alaska became a state in 1959.
But Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, noted that females comprise about half of Alaska’s population. Women will comprise roughly one-third of the 60-member Legislature.
As of January, the national average for women serving in Legislatures across the country was 25 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The number of women lawmakers has inched up in Alaska in recent years, with 17 serving in the 2013-2014 Legislature and 18 during the last Legislature.
Four women served in the first Legislature, in 1959-1960, according to information from Legislative Research Services.
Zulkosky replaces Democrat Zach Fansler, who resigned last month after being accused of hitting a woman.
Women, including Drue Pearce, Gail Phillips and the late Jan Faiks and Ramona Barnes, have held top leadership spots in the Alaska Legislature. The current Legislature also features several women in leadership roles.
Beth Kerttula, a former House Democratic leader, said Pearce, a Republican, was “very giving to young women,” and someone Kerttula went to for advice early in her political career.
Kerttula said her parents and law school professors, who were the first women in their classes, also were among those who influenced her. She said she hopes to see more women in elected office.
“We need to have more women in office, period, and making important decisions because that’s going to change our lives and our society and we need for that to happen,” she said.
Zulkosky, who is Alaska Native, said she was honored “to stand especially on the shoulders of giants and the women that have come before me, the Alaska Native women that have come before me.”
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham who has said he is the first Alaska Native to serve as speaker, also acknowledged other lawmakers who are Alaska Native, including House Minority Leader Charisse Millett.
Millett, an Anchorage Republican, said it’s important to have diversity in the Legislature and said there’s a lot of work to do on that front.
“I want the Legislature to be a reflection of Alaska,” she said.
Millett credits members of her family, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other women who previously served in the Legislature, Edgmon and Republican Rep. Mike Chenault as mentors.
During a speech on the House floor she called the day historic.
“I’m sure we’ll get out of here in 90 days now that we have one more woman in our body,” she quipped, referring to the length of the legislative session.
Lawmakers in recent years have run past that limit as they’ve struggled to agree on a plan to address the state’s budget deficit. The constitution allows for sessions of up to 121 days, and that still hasn’t necessarily been enough.
“No pressure, Rep. Zulkosky,” Edgmon said to laughter.