The Virginia General Assembly of the past never truly resembled the state’s population as, for decade after decade into this century, it looked like an old boy’s club.
In 2002, only 22 of the 140 members of the legislature were women, a small number that stayed relatively static over six election cycles and grew only to 26 women in 2016. Last year, the Assembly’s total shot up a bit to 37, or 26 percent of the legislature.
One reason for their historical underrepresentation has always been that fewer women have chosen to seek public office. That is changing in both major political parties.
This year, record numbers of women have gained nominations placing their names on Nov. 5 ballots for the 140 legislative seats. They are campaigning in astonishing new numbers that appear likely to change the face of state government.
Democrats have 48 women of their 92 nominees for the House of Delegates alone — or 52 percent of the party’s candidates — plus 17 of the party’s 36 Senate candidates.
Republicans note with pride that they have recruited a record 14 women of their 71 House nominees this year and six of the GOP’s 25 Senate candidates are women.
State Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, says women are changing the way the legislature looks and works.
“Polls indicate that the public believes women are more likely to work across the aisle for solutions to thorny issues. That has been my experience,” said Howell, a member of the Senate since 1992.
“We are able to focus on areas of common interest and usually find resolutions,” she said.
Howell said when Democrats control the legislature “issues of importance to most voters will be addressed: expanding healthcare, funding education from pre-k to graduate school, improving our human services delivery, and passing reasonable gun safety measures.”
“When I was first elected in 1991, these were called ‘women’s issues.’ Now they are priorities of all Democrats.”
Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, agreed that women bring changes to the General Assembly as well as to the enthusiasm levels seen in campaigns.
“The number of women elected to the General Assembly in the last two years has brought a tremendous jolt of positive energy to the body,” said Toscano.
“Some issues have been elevated in importance as well, particularly the ERA, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, and reproductive rights,” he said.
The Nov. 5 elections for the entire General Assembly will again test President Donald Trump’s impacts on the women’s vote and on each party’s voter turnout. Democrats are optimistic that the energy surrounding record numbers of women seeking legislative seats will yield a third year of party victories and the first year of total Democratic control of state government since 1993.
The hyper-partisanship of the current political atmosphere could create major change in Richmond by flipping narrow GOP majority control of both legislative chambers three months before presidential primaries begin.
Control could be decided by what party leaders call a “Trump effect” as each party becomes more nationalized and by the wildcard effect of new lines in 25 House districts drawn to correct racial gerrymandering.
Privately, Republicans also acknowledge that Trump seems to be a huge motivating factor generating enthusiasm for Democrats, and particularly for women voters, in suburban districts.
Trump is cited by Democrats as a major reason so many women have come forward to change the look and direction of the legislature.
Ironically perhaps, as Democrats have made women increasingly the new face of the party, so has Trump.
The president’s persistent personal attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color plus U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi have energized the growing female base of the Virginia Democratic Party, political analysts agree.
Arguably, no state has exhibited more electoral gains by women during Trump’s nearly three years in office than Virginia.
All three of the state’s new members of Congress who defeated Republican incumbents in 2018 are women, plus 11 new House Democrats elected in 2017 are women.
Rachel Bitecofer, Assistant Director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, says the optics of Democrats running a majority of women this year for the House of Delegates “excites women voters, who are already breaking in favor of the Democrats.”
“It is especially helpful in the highly educated suburban districts where the turnout of millennial women will be so important,” Bitecofer says.
Virginia’s legislative races this fall are getting more than the usual amount of national media attention as a test of Trump’s positive and negative appeal, with much more to come, she adds, noting she has given recent interviews to Rolling Stone and Politico.
Bitecofer said women would not just be back-benchers in next year’s General Assembly if Democrats win majorities. They would inherit committee chairmanships and Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, probably would become the first woman Speaker of the House.
The two biggest factors that could decide the Nov. 5 elections in Virginia by spurring voter turnout are the “Trump effect” and the record number of 85 women running as nominees of one or the other major political parties. They are intricately related.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.