The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers has a study out today providing data on women in state legislatures in 2023. There are a number of interesting data sets and charts. But the one that got my attention is the list of top ten and bottom ten states by female representation in state legislatures. The states on the lists are about what you would expect. The top ten states are blue states and the bottom ten are thoroughly red. The only real exception is Arizona — number three on the top ten — which may be trending blue but can’t really be called a blue state yet. The bottom ten aren’t just red. They’re overwhelmingly in the South and Deep South — Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana. The spread is also eye-popping. The most female representation was 60.3%. The lowest was West Virginia at 11.9%.
But what jumped out at me was the number one state in the top ten: Nevada.
By current standards this isn’t terribly surprising. Nevada is a fairly blue state and the part of it that is blue is very blue. But by historical standards — even over the last several decades — it’s pretty stunning. If you dropped back to the 1970s, you would have figured Nevada would more likely be in the bottom ten than the top. It was a very conservative state. It consistently voted for Republican Presidents by big margins through the 1970s and 1980s. If you spent any time out in the state’s deserts like I did as a kid on school field trips … well, it was weird.
Today Nevada is the only state in the country with a clear majority of female legislators at 60.3%. The next is Colorado with 50% even. Why is this the case? I’m no expert on Nevada politics. But even from a distance three things stand out.
First is simply that the state has trended heavily blue. That’s obvious. The other factor is that it’s changed so much in recent decades and has such a turn-out driven raucous politics that I suspect there’s relatively little seniority in the state legislature. There are lots of states which, I suspect, if you were to start today from scratch and elect totally new legislatures, the new one would be more female. But you’ve still got male incumbents who were first elected 20, 30 even 40 years ago, in a different era, and they’re popular. So they keep getting reelected. Nevada probably has relatively less of that simply because so much has happened and changed in the state in the last 20 years.
The final factor is more speculative on my part. But I suspect it’s the most decisive in getting Nevada to be highest on the list. Labor unions are a huge force in Nevada Democratic politics and thus state politics generally. The state’s most powerful union has grown over the last 25 years even as private sector unions have declined markedly over the same period nationwide. Those unions are overwhelmingly service unions working in Las Vegas and they have big female memberships. The most powerful of those unions is Culinary Workers Union local 226 which is 55% female. The union’s demographics must play a role. But modern unions tend to do this regardless.
But there’s one more detail here.
As I dug into the details I found this report on the history of representation in the Nevada state legislature. To my surprise I found that back in 1995 Nevada was already ranked second for female legislative representation. 34.9% of the state legislature was made up of women. That was second only to Washington state.
What accounted for that? Some of the first moves to women’s suffrage and office holding were in Western states. But Nevada wasn’t really part of that. Colorado, Utah and Idaho each had female state legislators in the 19th century. I couldn’t find any good charts or discussions of the issue so I pieced back through the 20th century looking at numbers of women in the Nevada state legislature over time. And it seems like it was a relatively new phenomenon, really a product of the 1980s rather than something that’s been a feature of the state’s politics going back into the distant past.
My best guess is that it’s largely a product of the three causes I noted above, with the trend simply starting sooner than I had understood, and the growth of Las Vegas and the labor activism it spurred still being a key driver. With that said, though, I find it more of a mystery than I did when I first started looking into it.