Indiana Legislative Chambers Reach Record High

Indiana Statehouse (photo from IL file)

The number of women holding elected legislative office in the Indiana Statehouse hit a record high of 40 following the results of last week’s election. If the results hold, a total of 31 women will serve in the House of Representatives and another nine in the Senate.

The proportion of women in the Indiana General Assembly, 26.7%, is comparable to the statewide representation in Congress, which according to the Pew Research Center reached its own record of 27.3%, or 120 of the 439 members, last year. Both numbers fall short of the representation of women in the general population, which is 50.5% for the state and 50.4% for Indiana, according to census data.

Laura Merrifield Wilson, a professor of political science at Indianapolis University, said the record number of women getting involved in politics can be seen as both a victory and a loss.

“Politically, gender parity does not yet exist in our country. On the one hand, we can be dismayed that we are still not at a point where this could be considered a contentious issue,” Wilson said. “It also helps to remember that it’s not just about the number, it’s also about what the number means. We can focus on the symbolic representation and … certainly it’s encouraging for little girls to see women in roles of power.”

Friday Recanvas (potential) secures victory for the 40th woman

The re-election of Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, on Friday helped push the total above the previous record of 38 held by the General Assembly during the 2020 legislative session, according to the Capitol & Washington political blog.

Fleming, a two-year congressman, initially looked set to lose 35 votes behind Republican challenger Scott Hawkins. But a re-voting session of the Clark County Election Committee on Friday, a federal holiday, added another 1,032 votes to his official tally as of Tuesday night, boosting Fleming and giving her a 225 vote lead over Hawkins, according to the News and Tribune.

Hawkins’ attorney, Zachary Stewart, didn’t rule out legal action after the new totals and said Monday they were weighing their options. The board is yet to confirm the election results in the coming week and recounts could be requested.

But Fleming seemed confident her win would stand up to a recount and said she was eager to rejoin the chamber in January.

“This was a win for positive politics and bipartisanship in government,” Fleming said Monday.

Fleming’s victory would also increase the Democratic faction in the House of Representatives. The Democrats flipped a Hamilton County seat and won a representative from Fort Wayne in a new district created by redistribution. Those gains offset the loss of longtime Congressman Terri Austin, a Democrat who represented Anderson for two decades.

Democrats nearly won another seat, also held by a woman, in southern Monroe County in Penny Githens, who narrowed to just 37 votes from Republican Dave Hall. Githens has until November 22 to request a recount, but Hall has claimed the win. A win for Githens would have brought the total number of women serving in the statehouse to 41.

Why aren’t more women running for office?

Wilson noted that the vast majority of politicians, regardless of political rank, are educated, middle- to upper-class white males — a minority in both Indiana and the nation. There are often “four career pipelines” that lend themselves to political candidacy: education, law, business, and lower-level political aides.

Men outperform women in all four areas. Industries where there are more women than men, including the service industry, do not offer the same flexibility that allows someone to take three to four months off each year to serve during the legislature.

Women are less likely than men to run for political office for a myriad of reasons, Wilson said, attributing much of the research in this area to Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox. Lawless and Fox found that when women choose to run, they are about as likely to win as men.

But women often compare themselves to the ideal version of a politician rather than the realistic version.

“Women say, ‘You know, I’m not that great a speaker … I know other people who would be better,'” Wilson said. “Men would say, ‘I see Senator So-and-So and I’ve seen this representative, I’m a better public speaker than they are.’

“…If you compare yourself to the actual (average politician) that’s more realistic than the idealized. Of course, with the idealized, nobody could be or live up to it.”

Wilson emphasized that Indiana has a history of doing well in the highest offices of the state, including the governor’s cabinet or the executive level, and even in recruiting at the party level.

On the Republican side, the Lugar Series has been training women for public service for 33 years, and the Democratic Hoosier Women Forward went live in 2018.

“In both cases, it is a party that recognizes that it is their responsibility to help develop strong candidates,” Wilson said.

Although several women have served as lieutenant governors, including the current Suzanne Crouch, none have made the leap to become the state’s first female governor. Additionally, Chief Justice Loretta Rush, the court’s only woman as of 2014, is the first woman to head the state Supreme Court but only the second woman ever appointed to the court.

While both female and male candidates underestimate the financial cost of a campaign, women are much closer to the total than their peers, Wilson said. Seeing that Sen. Kyle Walker had to raise over $1 million to keep his seat in a purple county, for example, might be daunting for a newcomer with fewer resources.

The influence of women in the 2023 session

The Indiana Supreme Court will hear arguments against the state’s near-total abortion ban in January and may decide while the General Assembly is still in session. As parturients, women’s voices are critical to any discussion of their bodily autonomy.

“Even if it doesn’t change (the outcome) directly, it’s still valuable to have those perspectives considered,” Wilson said.

In the Senate, three of the nine women in the chamber are Democrats. In the House of Representatives, the record high number of women with 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats is almost evenly distributed between both parties.

Republican women also had a big win on election night when five new women joined the caucus: Becky Cash in central Indiana; Julie McGuire in south Indianapolis; Lorissa Sweet in Northeast Indiana; Lindsay Patterson in east-central Indiana; and Jennifer Meltzer, southeast of Indianapolis.

The years she spent as OB-GYN shaped Fleming’s view of government health care, she said, particularly the inequalities in maternal health, abortion laws and child care shortages.

“I represent everyone — men, women, Democrats, Republicans, whatever — but I think as a woman, and especially as a woman with a career in healthcare, I can bring a perspective that others may not have,” Fleming said.

In recent years, Fleming has advocated for expanded pharmacies to prescribe contraceptive methods to women. During the special session on the abortion ban, Fleming drew on her experience to speak about the physical effects of pregnancy on young girls.

“As we face our challenges, our childcare challenges (and) our maternal mortality challenges, I think these are things that maybe women are better at dealing with and looking for ways that we can improve,” he said fleming

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and elections.