By the numbers, women are gaining in the General Assembly. They hope their issues follow.

By the numbers, women are gaining in the General Assembly. They hope their issues follow.

Author: Stephen Caruso/Wednesday, January 9, 2019/Categories: News and Views

A banner year for women in government moved Pennsylvania up five places for female representation in state legislative bodies.

The increase was among the biggest in all 50 states. Only four states saw a bigger percent increase in their women’s caucus, while only two, including New Hampshire and its 400-plus member legislative body, elected more new women.

Altogether, the House and Senate added 14 new women, per numbers from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

State female politicos greeted the news with a mix of excitement for the gains and resolve, for Pennsylvania still sat in the bottom half for female representation, moving from 39th to 34th highest.

The 63 female lawmakers are just under 25 percent of the body, up from 19 percent last year. Nationally, women make up 28.6 percent of state legislatures according to the CAWP.

“It’s only a mini-celebration,” Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of Chatham University’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, said.

“We’ve been calling it the wet blanket narrative, yeah it’s great but there are still way more men.”

The limited nature of the festivities became apparent on social media earlier this week, as the House Democrats named their committee chairs.

Despite the caucus being one-third female, there was not a single chairwoman, even as senior Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), whose settlement with a staffer he allegedly harassed was paid for with taxpayer money, retained a committee chair.

The event sparked some social media outrage, and drew a statement from House Democratic Spokesperson Bill Patton, who pointed to the set up as a result of chamber rules, not caucus choices.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) also pointed out that the Democratic House Caucus had more women then all but ten party state legislative caucuses in the country.

“It’s important that we reflect the entire state of Pennsylvania, as our Democratic Caucus does," Dermody said. "The strength of our Democratic Caucus comes from its diversity and that certainly includes gender diversity.”

Altogether, the House has 49 committee chairs, including the Appropriations chairs, elected by their fellow caucus members. Of them, only three are women. All three are Republicans.

The Senate looks a bit better. Of 44 committee chairs, 11 are women — five Republicans and six Democrats. All together, that means 15 percent of committee chairs were women. Nationally, women made up 21.4 percent of state legislature committee chairs in 2017 per the CAWP.

Both Senate caucuses have one woman, Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) and Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton) in leadership.

The House looks better among higher ups. Each caucus has two women in leadership, the highest total either caucus has had. Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) is the first female GOP policy chair, while Rep. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery) is caucus chair.

Across the aisle, Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) continues to hold down caucus secretary, while Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) was selected as caucus chair for the new session.

Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), pointed that that Oberlander’s post has often led to higher places. Current Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) once held the post, as did former Speaker John Perzel (R-Philadelphia) and Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana).

Even if more work is needed in the future, Chatham’s Sweet-Cushman thinks more compromise could be the cards for this session.

A study of the Pennsylvania State Legislature from the Center saw that women tend to attract more bipartisan names to co-sponsorship memos than their male counterparts. Also, more bills sponsored by women reached the governor’s desk for a signature.

Studies of Congress have mirrored the results — though occasionally with qualifications.

“If women were not there, goodness knows, we’d still be waiting on the 2015 budget,” Sweet-Cushman said.

The idea of women as go-betweens on policy solutions struck Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) as a good reputation to carry into the legislature.

“Anytime we can get compromise that’s a good thing because we can’t get good public policy without that,” Delozier said. “If having a few more women in the legislature accomplishes that, then all the better for the people of Pennsylvania.”

Some of the freshmen women, like newly elected Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery), were even more emphatic. She said the increase in women could mean a more thoughtful legislature that focuses on solutions.

“There’s not a lot of ego there, there’s just necessity. Whether you’re a caretaker, a mom, a career person, our brains never stop going,” Muth said.

Sweet-Cushman hoped that adding that more women could mean women’s issues could get more attention.

Depending on the party, what a “women’s issue” could be is up for debate. Her study included “feminist” bills on domestic violence, women’s health funding and pay equity, as well as social welfare bills on adoption regulations and increased punishments for crimes against children and the elderly.

Hanging over all those other topics is abortion, which could fray alliances. Former state representative, now Congresswoman Madeleine Dean said as much for the Center for the study, which writes that abortion “lessens the depth of solidarity in the women’s caucus.”

But even if there were disagreements on policy, former state representative, now Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said she did find a valuable bipartisan partner in another female lawmaker, Rep. Pam Snyder (D-Greene), on the issue of expanding rural broadband.

“When I first tried to begin to delve into the issue, I had male colleagues who said ‘don’t waste your time, it’s a fool's errand,’” Phillips-Hill said.

Seeing Snyder introduce her own bills on the matter made the two, who still disagree on some topics, decide to sit down to chat. Phillips-Hill reasoned that with a Republican-controlled General Assembly and a Democratic governor, “we need to work together” to honor the will of their voters.

Phillips-Hill later qualified that “you’ll find good people of both genders.” She also added that any diversity of experience, from being a dock worker to farmer to caregiver, was an important part of a functioning legislature.

The newly-elected senator said she was able to bring the latter to the table when talking policy.

Pointing to the numbers, Sweet-Cushman said that both in the state and nationally, the wave of women was tinged blue. Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation went from having no female lawmakers to four, all Democrats.

In Harrisburg, Democrats added more women to their caucuses than Republicans — 11 to six in the House and three to two in the Senate — while two-thirds of female state House and Senate candidates were Democrats.

On the ground, Democratic members also saw more women engaged in the process, which Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery) thought was at least partially inspired by anger with President Donald Trump.

“Women were actually the candidates, but also the volunteers, the voters,” Daley said. “Women really showed up and were counted, and I’m very happy about it.”

According to data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, female voters backed Democrats by 19 percentage points. Men backed Republicans by four.

But regardless of partisanship, one topic hovers over everything for Muth. A rape survivor, she has not been shy about telling her story of sexual violence, and plans to continue to tell it as an elected official in the hope of making change.

Muth called for Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) to resign soon after allegations that he sexual harassed staff surfaced. The call sparked a feud between fellow Democrats Muth and Leach, who has denied the allegations and refused to step down.

“He’s a bully and there’s bullies all through our government,” Muth said. “At some point I refuse to bow down to that.”

She also suggested changes to make sexual harassment complaints subject to open record requests, and banning use of taxpayer dollars in settlements.

In an emailed statement, Zak Pyzik, spokesperson for Leach, declined to comment on Muth's assertion but struck a collegial tone.

“Sen. Leach and Sen.-elect Muth seem to agree on many issues," Pyzik said. "He’s looking forward to working with all of the newly elected Senators in 2019.”

In their own rule changes, the House, which recently lost Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) and still holds Caltagirone, handed authority to the Ethics Committee to investigate harassment by members.

But beyond legislation, Muth hopes that by being vocal with her own experiences, she could change the attitude of the whole building.

“I don’t know if my self alone can change the culture, but I sure as hell plan to try,” Muth said.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at or call at 845-891-4306.