Editor’s Note: Swanee Hunt, former US ambassador to Austria, is founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and founder of Seismic Shift, an initiative dedicated to increasing the number of women in high political office. She is also the author of “Rwandan Women Rising.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Nevada legislature, which concluded its biennial session on Monday, is making history — and not just statistically. At 52%, this state house is the first to become majority female, and what a difference that is proving to make, particularly when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.
Take the recent rash of “heartbeat bills” passed by male-dominant legislatures in a growing number of states this past month. They include Georgia, Missouri and, most recently, Louisiana. The restrictions are medieval, forcing women and girls to become mothers once a fetal heartbeat is detected (at about six to eight weeks).
The penalties for having an abortion — or carrying one out — are worse. In Louisiana, a woman’s reward for being the victim of a sexual assault: bearing and raising her rapist’s child. In Alabama, abortion has been almost entirely banned, including in cases of rape and incest. In Georgia, once a fetal heartbeat is detected, the unborn child is considered a “natural person,” leaving women who get an abortion and doctors who perform abortions open to prosecution. Doctors in Alabama could face up to 99 years in prison for carrying out a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.
In striking contrast, Nevada has just voted to protect a woman’s private choice over fears the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade. Last week, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the “Trust Nevada Women Act,” which removes criminal penalties for abortions and other barriers to reproductive health care. Other recent Nevada bills aim to protect women, like one passed by the state Senate which would provide a path for the removal of state and local officials for sexual harassment and other “bad behavior.”
Colorado, second to Nevada with 47% women in the state legislature, has passed a bill (with three female sponsors and one male sponsor) moving the state toward paid family leave. Another bill (with four female sponsors) establishes an action plan to reduce greenhouse gas.
I’ve worked in more than 60 countries and I know that the correlation between disempowered women and stagnant social progress can’t be explained with “Well, in our culture….” From Korea to Congo to Colombia, the connection is the same. On the other side of the ledger is Iceland. In 2017, with 48% of its parliament women, it legally mandated equal pay in the public and private sectors.
Rwandan women have led the world in legislative representation (north of 60% the last 5 years). They have also moved into key positions such as constitutional commissioner, Supreme Court chief justice, Senate president and foreign minister among others. The difference? Dramatic social improvement, with significant female leadership, in almost every measurable category of stabilization.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the impact that female leaders can have is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who donned a headscarf in response to mass shootings at two mosques. Soon after, her country passed a law banning most semi-automatic weapons.
Here at home, the Democratic women running for President in 2020 are firing up women’s imaginations and normalizing female candidacy for the nation’s highest office. Recent weeks have seen Elizabeth Warren whittle away at Bernie Sanders’ lead among progressive Democratic voters. And according to two new polls by CNN and Morning Consult, Warren and Kamala Harris rank among the top five contenders in the presidential sweepstakes.
The gender diversity in this year’s race builds on Hillary Clinton’s run four years ago. Her candidacy and triumphant popular vote win did shatter the glass ceiling but certainly not in the way most anticipated. In her campaign, our collective conscious expanded until we all expected to see a female commander in chief (whether we hated the idea or not). It turns out, the ceiling was in our heads, and the surge of women in politics (admittedly aided and abetted by a misogynist in chief), has shaken the foundation of American culture.
As women continue to surge into every level of political leadership, the #MeToo movement continues to work on us from the inside out. Emerge, an organization that recruited and trained diverse Democratic women in Nevada and Colorado, is part of a surge of national groups working to increase numbers of elected women. She the People, a new network encouraging women of color to step forward into politics, earned bragging rights in April by attracting eight presidential candidates (four of them women) as speakers.
Across the aisle, a few states are getting the message. In Nevada, six of the Assembly’s 32 women are Republicans. Given the GOP’s paltry 9% female presence on Capitol Hill, some women are taking action. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a champion of diversity, has committed to using her leadership PAC to back Republican women in primaries. Strategist Rina Shah told me she’s focusing on the primaries, gearing up to provide technical support to Republican women facing the highest hurdle: convincing the rightest of the right-wing base to back them.
But optimism about women’s strides must be tempered. Looming obstacles remain, such as a continuing difference between how women and men are perceived as candidates and elected officials and in fundraising, where — as recently observed by author Marianne Schnall — women are still not on equal footing to men in raising or donating campaign dollars.
It’s possible we’re in a virtuous cycle, or better yet, helix. Women run, win and govern, attracting more women to run, win and govern. Despite tragic regress in places like Alabama, we’re feeling the earth move under our feet. And for now, the epicenter of this political seismic shift is Carson City, Nevada.