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How Women Came To Dominate Colorado's Legislature


There are only two legislative chambers in the country where women make up the majority. One of them is the Colorado statehouse. The growing involvement of women in politics is often credited to a backlash against President Donald Trump. But, as Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports, the trend started much earlier.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: It's been a slow rise over the last decade as more women get elected to the Colorado legislature. Democratic Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez from Denver is one of those new lawmakers. She says she probably wouldn't even be sitting here on the House floor if a friend hadn't called her and encouraged her to run.

SERENA GONZALES-GUTIERREZ: I was actually kind of shocked. I just never thought that that was something that I would go into - into politics.

BIRKELAND: Gonzales-Gutierrez is a mother of three and worked in child welfare and juvenile justice. She says after that phone call, she spent about a year weighing her options. The more she learned, the more she thought she could make a real difference. But ultimately, she says she did it for her kids.

GONZALES-GUTIERREZ: I would tell people, you know, I'm thinking about running. And they would say, well, don't you have small children - as if to discourage me. That made me want to fight more.

BIRKELAND: And it helped to get support from a group called Emerge Colorado. They're affiliated with a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. Michal Rosenoer is Colorado's executive director. She says getting women to run can be hard.

MICHAL ROSENOER: Women tend to need to be invited or asked to run five to seven times, whereas I think, if you're a man, and you wake up and put your tie on in the morning, and you think to yourself, hey, I kind of look like the president, it's much easier to see yourself at the table.

BIRKELAND: In the last midterm election, Emerge Colorado candidates won 15 out of 16 state races. Rosenoer says female voters were especially engaged because of President Trump. But she doesn't think that's why these candidates succeeded.

ROSENOER: And the bump we've seen in Congress and state legislatures this year is really about voters responding to powerful, smart, thoughtful women who are running. And we've got those women running right now because we've been investing in women candidates for a decade or more now.

BIRKELAND: Colorado elected the first female state lawmakers in the country. They were Republicans. But these days, the gains are mostly happening on the other side of the aisle, and not just in Colorado. In 2019, Republican women are down 45 state legislative seats nationwide. That's according to the Center for American Women in Politics. Vicki Marble is now the only Republican woman in the Colorado Senate. She chalks it up to a tough year for Republicans and says it won't change how she does her job.

VICKI MARBLE: I think everyone brings a different style and approach - doesn't matter about their gender.

BIRKELAND: But her colleague in the House, Republican Representative Lois Landgraf, says having more women in power can change what policies get debated and how business is conducted. She would like her party to do more to train and encourage women to run.

LOIS LANDGRAF: Because I do think women legislate a little differently than men. I think they look at things a bit differently.

BIRKELAND: Landgraf thinks training programs can also help women do a better job of supporting each other once they do get into office.

LANDGRAF: We're harder on ourselves and we're harder on our women legislators. Or, if you're in the job market, women are not always as kind to other women as they perhaps could be.

BIRKELAND: This legislative session, for the third time in a row, the Colorado House has elected a female speaker. House Democrats have also changed the name of the newest class of lawmakers. Instead of freshmen, it's first years. And the capitol is adding a private lactation room for new mothers.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia's Marketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.