Women make up a slight majority of Oklahomans, but that doesn’t translate into representation in the Legislature and Congress.
Oklahoma has the fourth lowest percentage of female legislators in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. There are four women among 48 Senate members, and 16 women among 101 House members. Altogether, women make up 13.4 percent of the state’s legislators, slightly ahead of Alabama, South Carolina and Louisiana. States with the largest shares of women are Colorado, 42 percent, and Vermont, 41 percent.
In Congress, a record number of women – 98, or 18 percent — took office in January, but Oklahoma was not part of that trend. The state’s delegation has no women.
Women comprise 51 percent of Oklahoma’s population.
Females aren’t the only group whose political representation is lower than its share of the population. In the Legislature, six members (4 percent) are Black and one member (.7 percent) is Hispanic. Statewide, 7.4 percent of Oklahoma’s population is Black and 8.9 percent is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
State Rep. Emily Virgin D-Norman, 26, said she believes the Legislature needs more women because women frame issues differently than men. Women tend to be more empathic of people who are poor and disadvantaged and focus more on issues of poverty, education, families and children, she said.
Also, “things work better and more smoothly when there are more women involved,” she said. “Compromise is more encouraged if more women are involved.”
When Virgin was elected, she was concerned that being young and female would be an obstacle to her success, but said she found the opposite. Women can be effective lawmakers, she said.
Oklahoma does have women in prominent positions of state government: the state’s first female governor, Mary Fallin; State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi; Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki; Secretary of Veterans Affairs Rita Aragon, and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White.
Two women also serve on Oklahoma’s nine-member Supreme Court: Noma Gurich and Yvonne Kauger.
As to why more women aren’t legislators, two female lawmakers did not cite factors such as Oklahoma’s traditional culture or the question of voter bias.
Rep. Elise Hall, 24, R-Oklahoma City, and Virgin said that mainly it’s hard to find women to run for political office. Hall said many women have family commitments that prevent them from campaigning and serving.
Virgin said over time, as more women choose to run for political seats, other women will follow suit. Eventually, there will be similar numbers of men and women in the Legislature, she said.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon, but I think it will happen,” Virgin said.