When women and mothers serve as lawmakers

June 28, 2016
By Rep. Ann Lininger

When I met with my boss years ago to plan my maternity leave, he spoke admiringly of a woman who returned to her job two weeks after childbirth. I had no clear maternity-related benefits in that position, and our family needed my income. I went back to work after just six weeks. My baby, unfortunately, was unable to switch between nursing and bottle-feeding, so when I returned to work, my newborn stopped nursing. It was heartbreaking.

That experience is one reason I voted for a bill last year to create paid sick leave in Oregon. It is why I also support efforts to establish paid family medical leave.

The life experiences of legislators shape our priorities. I believe we need strong representation of mothers and women in lawmaking roles so that we have elected officials who understand firsthand the challenges that mothers and women face.

The State Department recently invited me to speak at the United Nations about why it matters to have women in lawmaking roles and how we can increase their representation. In the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations members embraced the value of gender balance in lawmaking bodies as a way to improve women’s lives. Now U.N. members are working to achieve that balance.

I expressed my view that Oregon’s relatively strong representation of women in lawmaking roles has helped us pass bills that make a real difference for women and families. Women in Oregon hold 31 percent of seats in the state Legislature compared to 24 percent nationally. Among Democrats, 41 percent of state legislators are women. Women also hold key leadership positions.

That makes a difference. Over the last two years, Oregon legislators have passed bills to prevent domestic abusers from possessing guns, improve government’s response to sexual assault crimes, expand access to affordable childcare, enable workers to earn paid sick leave, raise the minimum wage (which disproportionately affects women), make it easier for women to obtain birth control and help women who work part-time or intermittently due to caregiving needs save for retirement. We passed these bills with strong support from male colleagues, but women lawmakers played a key role in prioritizing this work.

We have made progress in achieving gender balance, and we need to make more because of the significant policy changes that can come about from more balanced elected bodies. Although women comprise over half the population, we hold disproportionately few seats in the Oregon Legislature — and a mere 20 percent of seats in Congress. That kind of lopsidedness gives rise to situations like the infamous all-male congressional hearings on women’s reproductive health care.

We need to expand use of approaches that help women win elections. Emerge Oregon teaches Democratic women the basic choreography of a campaign and provides guidance on topics like public speaking, fundraising and campaign staffing. The Oregon Women’s Campaign School provides similar training for pro-choice Republican and Democratic candidates. WINPAC (Women’s Investment Network Political Action Committee), the Mother PAC, Family Forward Action and pro-choice groups educate candidates on key issues and introduce them to community influencers and potential donors. Members of Oregon’s Fair Shot Coalition support candidates who share their values, and they help shape legislation that benefits women and families. The strategies these groups use are effective, and they can be replicated elsewhere.

At the conclusion of my remarks at the U.N., diplomats and advocates from around the world expressed strong interest in approaches we have used in Oregon to elect and empower women. I want Oregonians to know that.

To the women who have run for elected office in our state — regardless of whether you won — and to the advocates who supported them and helped craft legislation to benefit women and families: You have accomplished a great deal. Not only is your work helping people in Oregon — it is providing a model to improve the lives of people around the world.

Democrat Ann Lininger is a state representative, mother and attorney. She lives with her family in Lake Oswego and represents House District 38 in the Oregon Legislature. She is a graduate of the 2009 class of Emerge Oregon.