Women in the Statehouse

State Rep. Melanie Wright, Daleville (right), and Terri Austin, Anderson (middle), are among 17 women who are part of the Democratic Party’s 33-member caucus in the 2020 session of the Indiana House of Representatives. Other legislators shown in this 2017 photo are, from left, Rep. Tony Cook, Rep. Bob Cherry and Sen. Tim Lanane.

Could Julia Reynolds Nelson have foreseen this?

One hundred years ago Indiana ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. That same year, Nelson was the first woman selected to serve in the Indiana General Assembly.

Nelson, who lived in Muncie, was active in the women’s suffrage movement and was chairperson of the Delaware County Republican Women’s Club during the campaign in 1920. When the area’s state representative, J. Clark McKinley, died just before the November election, she was selected to replace him.

Now, flash forward a century.

During the 2020 session, for the first time in state history, women comprise the majority of a caucus in the General Assembly. Seventeen of the 33 Democrats in the Indiana House are women.

Without a doubt, Nelson would have celebrated a day when women constitute the majority of a major political party in the Indiana House. It truly is cause for Hoosier women, and really all Hoosiers, to celebrate.

How did it happen? Well, Indiana Democrats have made diversity a core value. In 2018, a statewide initiative called Hoosier Women Forward was launched to increase the number of Democratic women in elected and appointed government positions.

Nelson’s Republican Party is lagging more than a little behind. Among GOP legislators, just 11 of 67 in the House and eight of 40 in the Senate are women. Two of the 10 Democratic senators are women.

While the Democratic House caucus has set a new standard for gender diversity in the Legislature, clearly, there’s still an imbalance. Not only do men hold 112 of the 150 legislative seats, just 15 are held by racial minorities.

Here, again, the GOP is behind. Not a single member of the party’s Statehouse delegation, 107 strong, is a minority.

The membership of the General Assembly simply does not come close to approximating the state’s population diversity.

Gerrymandered districts have disenfranchised some voters and given an edge in many cases to white candidates. And the political parties, particularly the GOP, must do a better job of recruiting female and minority candidates, as well as courting minority voters.

Yes, Julia Reynolds Nelson would have been thrilled to find that, a century later, women comprise the majority of a major party caucus in the Indiana House.

Now, let’s set our sights on achieving true gender and racial balance at the Statehouse. And let’s not wait another 100 years to do it.

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