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Nevada Reaches Major Milestone As First State With Majority Of Women In Legislature


In Carson City tomorrow, Nevada's legislature is meeting. And in a first for the United States, women will outnumber men. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak' State of the State speech, he hailed the new legislature.


STEVE SISOLAK: Tonight we are joined by the newly elected and appointed women who took a leap this past year and, together, made history.

FADEL: Like the country, it's just over 50 percent women. And Patricia Ann Spearman, a Nevada senator and Democrat, says, finally.

PATRICIA ANN SPEARMAN: I'm starting to see some of the fruits of not just my labor but the labor of so many other people whose names I don't know. But the fruits of their labor are present and undeniable.

FADEL: Spearman is 64, a black woman, a lesbian, a retired lieutenant colonel in the army and an ordained minister.

SPEARMAN: I've had to fight for everything that I have. All the titles - none of that was given to me.

FADEL: She was first elected as state senator in 2012.

SPEARMAN: I think what has happened in Nevada is women, in particular - and we have had some men to support this - have said, it's time to do away with the patriarchy that holds people down. It's just time to do away with that.

FADEL: Nevada has been leading when it comes to electing women. They are now the majority in the state Supreme Court. The lieutenant governor is a woman. On the federal level, both U.S. senators are women. And half of the state's U.S. representatives are women. Nevada isn't the rule, though. Kelly Dittmar is a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

KELLY DITTMAR: Getting to 50 percent in any one place is something significant. At the same point, this is one legislature out of 50. So we still have a lot of progress left to make across the country.

FADEL: But why has it taken this long to get here? Dittmar says, of course, there was the formal exclusion of women from politics. Women couldn't run or vote. Since then, there's been the informal exclusion based on gender stereotypes, like women can't lead. Also, men have just been doing this a lot longer.

DITTMAR: Men in party leadership, political leadership, those are the people who are tapping candidates - right? - who are recruiting candidates to run and deciding who gets on the ballot.

FADEL: And while Nevada's milestone is remarkable, progress around the country has been slow. Right now less than 30 percent of state legislators across the U.S. are women. Less than 25 percent of Congress is female. And the data show the only way to reach gender parity is to nominate more women. The Democrats are doing that. About 70 percent of women state legislators are Democrats. And overall, Republican women lost seats in the last election. And that's because far fewer women were nominated from that party. Jill Tolles, a Republican Nevada Assembly member, says she's working within her party to make sure there's recruiting and mentorship.

JILL TOLLES: Before I ran for office, I did look at the makeup and think, wow. There's just not as many females in the Republican Party. And how do we change that?

FADEL: Tolles says women in particular are reaching across the aisle in Nevada with a bipartisan, bicameral Women's Caucus.

TOLLES: We were able to come together over the areas where we share common ground and be able to advance some access to women's health care, like breast cancer screenings and access to birth control.

FADEL: This milestone, she says, is a continuation of that work. Both Assemblywoman Tolles and Senator Spearman are headed back to Carson City. But Selena Torres is serving for the first time. She's 23 and a high school English teacher.

SELENA TORRES: It's really exciting to be a part of this female majority but also to be a Latina sitting in that majority. I mean, when you have students that are recognizing, maybe for the first time, that they too have the ability to be involved and run for office - and it truly highlights the importance of having us in office.

FADEL: She's only a few years older than her students in a largely Latino district in southern Nevada. Over a quarter of the state is Latino. Torres says Nevada has always been a pioneering state with women trailblazers.

TORRES: When you think about Nevada, we think about the Wild West. And I think in a lot of ways, Nevada still is the Wild West.

FADEL: She says this place isn't afraid to do things that others haven't. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.