Commentary: Record-breaking gain at Statehouse marks tiny change

The new Indiana General Assembly was sworn in Tuesday, with an important milestone reached.

More women now represent Indiana in the state legislature than ever before. In all, 35 women now serve in the House and Senate, beating the past record of 33 women set in 1995.

Yes, it took Indiana more than two decades just to add two additional women to its 150 members. Hardly a reason to pop the champagne. Women make up about 51 percent of the population of Indiana, but only 23 percent of the General Assembly, even with this year’s historic gains. That’s less than the national average of just over 25 percent in 2018, a number that’s sure to be higher due to the so-called “pink wave” in this November’s elections.

Except, that is, for the House Democratic caucus. Only two of the 10 Senate Democrats are women, and only seven of the 40 Senate Republicans. Among the 67 House Republicans, 9 are women, for a paltry 13 percent.

But women are actually a majority of the House Democratic caucus, holding 17 of that side’s 33 seats.

Tuesday, as lawmakers took their seats in the House of Representatives, the differences were striking. On the Republican side, every face was white. The first three rows? All men. But the Democrat side looked a lot more like a portrait of the state, with 15 black lawmakers, one Hispanic and the state’s first Asian-American in the legislature.

Looking down the rows of lawmakers, some new faces joining long-time members, the change that this year’s election brought was clear. In one row on the Democratic side, there were six women and one black man. Take it from someone who started covering the legislature back in 1990: That’s an unprecedented sight.

Does it matter? Women and minorities — including the first openly gay senator — now have more seats at the table. But do they have a voice, especially considering that Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, have no minorities at all among their members and only 16 women among their 107 members?

And women have yet to break into the top leadership roles, though they fill a variety of “assistant” this and “deputy” that, plus committee chairmanships. All four caucus leaders are white men.

“It’s still a man’s world,” said Rep. Vanessa Summers, a black Democrat from Indianapolis who has served since 1991. “Hopefully that will change just by listening to some of the things we have to say and (realizing) how important it is to hear another side.”

Rep. Maria Candelaria Reardon, a Hispanic Democrat from Munster, said “the chamber should reflect the population. It gives people a different perspective. People only know what they know, and when they hear another perspective then they can give it weight and consideration.

She and Sen. Vaneta Becker, a Republican from Evansville, were both optimistic he legislative agenda will reflect many of the concerns of women, from better funding for the Department of Child Services to raising teacher pay.

Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-West Lafayette, has been in the legislature longer than any other woman currently serving, first winning election in 1982. Then, she was one of only 14 women serving in the House and Senate.

She now sits in that nearly all-female row. And she expects the numbers to grow, citing women elected to city and county offices who may later move  up to the Statehouse.

That, though, is the same story I’ve heard since the 1980s. It’s the year of the woman! The glass ceiling has a million cracks! A pink wave! And then — tiny incremental change.

Maybe this year will be different. After all, it just isn’t in Indiana that more women than ever are holding elected office. At least 122 women will serve in the next Congress, a record-breaking high of 24 percent that leaves Congress far from reflecting the nation’s demographics. There, as in Indiana, the gains are largely on the Democratic side.

Parity, though, shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Republicans cannot grow if they are the party of old white men. America and Indiana are better with a leadership that truly represents the people.

The gains of 2018 have to be a start, not the finish.

Mary Beth Schneider is an editor with TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website from Franklin College journalism students.

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