Nevada Lawmakers Kick Off Majority Female Session

Feb 5, 2019

Nevada’s 2019 Legislative Session is now underway, and for the first time in U.S. history, women will make up the majority of lawmakers in a state legislature. 

The floor of the Nevada Assembly was packed yesterday with lawmakers, and their families, as they were sworn in to start the session.

While the start of the biennial legislature is always an occasion for a bit of pomp, this year was different.

For the first time, female lawmakers outnumbered their male counterparts, with women holding 50.8 percent of the 63 seats in both the Assembly and Senate.

“We are proud to usher in a milestone that brings representation of everyday Nevadans that much closer to true representative democracy. Yes, we are the first female majority legislature in the history of this country,” said Speaker of the Assembly Jason Firerson speaking to his colleagues moments after being sworn in.

Nevada was able to achieve the milestone during last year’s “pink wave”. Across the U.S., more women were elected to office than in any other previous year.

“What we saw in 2018 is the very first time there was any kind of meaningful moving of the needle in terms of women’s representation in state legislatures,” said Jean Sinzdak, with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But, she also says the sharp increase resides solely within the Democratic Party.

“That’s certainly nothing new,” Sindak said. “It’s just the degree to which that gap’s widened is pretty dramatic. What the Republican Party also needs to grapple with [is], what are they doing or not doing to encourage newcomers to their party, and particularly women and other minority groups?”

Case in point: The Nevada Senate.

This year there are nine women in the 21-member Senate. That’s a net gain of one over the 2017 session. However, in that same amount of time, the number of Republican women has dropped from two to just one – Senator Heidi Gansert of Reno.

“What I know is that women are very independent and they’re entrepreneurial and they have a lot of leadership skills,” Gansert said. “So, I think that it will trend, for both parties, more and more females. So, right now, we don’t have nearly as many Republican women in the legislature as we do Democrats, but I think the trend really is for more women to stand up and lead”

David Lee as he's walking downtown.
Credit Lucia Starbuck

 But for the other side of the aisle, women are in charge now. This session, women will chair 13 of the legislature’s 20 standing committees – including all of the relatively powerful finance committees.

“What I look at this session is what are we going to be able to accomplish, it’s not just about what one person can accomplish,” said Floor Majority Leader, Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson of Reno. “It’s not even about a title, or having a title, it’s really about what’s going to come from systemic change, political change then legislative change. So, I’m thinking more about the big changes that are going to come then our influence as a group.”

And that’s what some like David Lee, a longtime Reno resident, are hoping for.

As he walks along the Truckee River, he says the women in his life should have someone to look up to.

“We have two daughters, both adults, both with kinds of their own,” said Lee. “Then we have two granddaughters. So they need to be able to wake up in the morning and look at the newspaper and they need to see women in power. They need to see the Nancy Pelosi’s of the world telling truth to power.”

Gabrielle Nucci walks across the UNR Campus on her way to class.
Credit Lucia Starbuck

For Gabrielle Nucci, a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno, the female majority hits even closer to home. “I think that there are a lot of things that men don’t really understand, in a sense, because their not women,” Nucci said. “Just by feeling threatened by others or even feeling like a minority and that you don’t have as big of a voice as men do. So, I think that having more female representation gives us that voice.”

Despite gains, there’s still a ways to go until states reach true parity. According to data from the Center for American Women in Politics, on a national level women still only account for roughly 28.5 percent of the total number of lawmakers in state legislatures overall. That number is even lower in Congress.

KUNR's Lucia Starbuck contributed to this report. Starbuck is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism