See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S. Women may make up half the population in the U.S., but just 24.5 percent of state lawmakers are women.
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See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S.

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See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S.

See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fewer than one-fourth of this country's state legislators are women. Here are two stories of women and political power, starting with Caroline Ballard of Wyoming Public Radio.

CAROLINE BALLARD, BYLINE: Wyoming is sometimes called the Equality State. It had the nation's first female governor and was the first territory to give women the right to vote. But that legacy isn't visible on the floor of the state Senate. Twenty-nine out of 30 state senators are men.

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BERNADINE CRAFT: I'm Craft.

BALLARD: Bernadine Craft is Wyoming's only female senator. She's a Democrat from Rock Springs, a high plains mining town of about 25,000 people. Craft is also a licensed psychotherapist, a former adjunct at the community college, the executive director of an educational services board.

CRAFT: And then while I was in the Senate, I was ordained as an Episcopal priest. So I'm also the Episcopal priest in Rock Springs.

BALLARD: So you're a little busy.

CRAFT: I'm busy (laughter).

BALLARD: But despite her many leadership positions, Craft says running for office had never occurred to her.

CRAFT: Never ever, and it was Senator Rae Lynn Job. And I actually have her Senate seat now. But at the time, she was still in the Senate and was looking for somebody to run for the House and came and talked to me and talked to me. It took about three months to talk me into running.

BALLARD: She was first elected to the state House in 2006 and is now the Senate minority whip. Craft is one of a small number of women who serve in the Wyoming House and Senate. Just 13 percent of lawmakers here are women, the lowest in the country. The Wyoming Legislature wasn't always so lopsided. Back in the mid-80s, a quarter of the state's legislators were women, among the highest nationwide at the time. The Equality State was living up to its name.

MARGARET BROWN: That is our reputation, and we need to be doing what we can to personify that reputation. And we're not doing a real good job at this point.

BALLARD: That's Margaret Brown. She served in the Legislature in the mid-80s.

BROWN: There were enough women that it wasn't - you weren't an oddity. You didn't feel like an oddity. It was just a very comfortable working situation.

BALLARD: Since the '80s, the number of women in the Wyoming Legislature has steadily dropped. There are a number of reasons, and it's difficult to say which has had the greatest impact. First off, in the 1990s, Wyoming went from multimember to single-member districts. Margaret Brown says she thinks that has been detrimental.

BROWN: And so maybe you like Suzie Q and you like John, but you can only vote for one. So you have to pick.

BALLARD: Women are often primary caregivers, and many juggle work obligations. With all of the different hats Bernadine Craft wears, she says finding time to serve in office can be tough.

CRAFT: It's very, very difficult to juggle full-time employment and the legislature, which is also a full-time job.

BALLARD: Another barrier for female candidates is money. Katie Ziegler compiles data for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She says male candidates often draw on wealthier donor networks.

KATIE ZIEGLER: It might take 5 or 10 points of contact for a woman to raise $1,000, whereas maybe a male candidate can call up one person and get a $1,000 check.

BALLARD: And if women aren't running for office in states like Wyoming, Ziegler says it's a national problem, too. Right now about half of the current members of Congress are former state lawmakers.

ZIEGLER: There's this pool of people that maybe someday will make a run for Congress, whether it's the House or the U.S. Senate. And there aren't a lot of women in that pool in state legislatures. And so there aren't very many women rising up to move to that next level.

BALLARD: People in Wyoming who want to change the situation in the state need only look south for inspiration. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Ballard in Laramie, Wyo.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: I'm Megan Verlee, about two hours down the interstate in Denver, Colo. which has the nation's highest percentage of female lawmakers. Forty-two of the state's 100 legislators are women.

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UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Hello, Nancy.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #2: Oh, there she is.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Glad you made it.

VERLEE: I expected to find a bunch of them at this women's history month reception hosted by their former colleagues. But it turned out they were mostly all off working.

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UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Well, we're talking budget, so it's like...

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #2: Are you starting it this year?

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Well, no.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #3: No, House is...

VERLEE: It's a little hard to get a good read on exactly why Colorado has done so well at electing women to its Legislature. Female lawmakers like to credit the state's independent pioneer spirit. But Wyoming has a similar history, and we just heard how they're doing. That said, Colorado was the first state to elect women to its Legislature back in 1894. And Meg Froelich, who recently produced a documentary about women in Colorado politics, says momentum seems to play a role.

MEG FROELICH: Well, we really feel it builds on the tradition that we've established. So because we've had more women, we have more women.

VERLEE: Term limits and party leadership also make a difference. As seats have opened up, party leaders have actively encouraged women to fill them, especially, Froelich says, in the state's swelling suburbs.

FROELICH: I think both parties have discovered that women do well in suburbia. So if you want to win that election, it's often a winning strategy to put forward a woman candidate.

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DICKEY LEE HULLINGHORST: The House will come to order. The pledge will be led by...

VERLEE: That's House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. She's the first Democratic woman to lead the chamber, although Republicans captured that honor more than a decade ago. Hullinghorst says having a lot of female lawmakers affects the overall tone of the capitol.

HULLINGHORST: This is no longer a good old boys club. And I think any time you mix it up and represent a lot of diversity, I think it makes the tenor better. It broadens the perspective in general.

VERLEE: For all the women serving under Colorado's golden Capitol dome, though, there does still seem to be a glass ceiling. The state has never elected a female senator or governor and currently only sends one woman to Congress. Former House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, a Republican, tried unsuccessfully to win her party's Senate nomination two years ago. Stephens says it's harder for a woman to raise the kind of money and political support needed for the big campaigns.

AMY STEPHENS: So if you're not fighting the party politic on one end, you're fighting the finance on the other and you're fighting something else that somehow our male colleagues don't seem to have to go through.

VERLEE: Like many other female lawmakers here, Stephens says she does expect to see women break into Colorado's highest offices soon. After all, with so many women in the state Legislature, both parties have pretty deep benches. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.

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