CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — When Bernadine Craft first arrived in Cheyenne as a member of the House of Representatives nearly a dozen years ago, one of her first lessons in Wyoming politics came from a veteran female lawmaker. She offered Craft the same lesson numerous women have heard since first gaining seats in the male-dominated body.
“Never, ever cry on the floor,” recalled Craft, a longtime educator, Episcopal priest and 10-year veteran of the Wyoming Legislature.
Through difficult and graphic discussions on topics like animal cruelty and domestic violence, Craft was often the only woman in the room, and she had to maintain composure under arduous and stressful circumstances. It’s a standard of infallibility the men of the Legislature often are given the chance to bend.
Craft said she never felt disparaged or singled out for being a woman during her time in the Legislature.
The pressures, however, were much more subtle, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
As the only woman in a room of 29 men during her time in the Wyoming Senate, Craft never felt like she could put her feet up or open a newspaper. She could not arrive unprepared for a debate or feel like she hadn’t done her homework on even the smallest issue. Her biggest fear, she said, was forgetting to silence her cellphone, interrupting a tense floor debate or, worst of all, the morning prayer. “Isn’t that just like a woman?” she feared they would think.
When you’re the only one in the crowd, you tend to be aware that all eyes are on you.
“Do I rummage in my purse to silence and risk somebody getting a picture of Sen. Craft rummaging in her purse during the prayer? Or do I just pray really hard that my phone doesn’t ring?” she recalled, remembering the flash of fear on the mornings when she wasn’t sure. “And that’s what I did. I just prayed really hard, and I guess it worked because my phone never rang.”
“I always felt like there was no safety in numbers, you know, that I was an example,” she added. “You’re sort of the standard-bearer and the torchbearer, and sometimes that can feel a little lonely.”
Wyoming’s shortage of women in the statehouse is a well-chronicled one.
Since Mary Bellamy became Wyoming’s first female lawmaker 119 years ago, Wyoming has elected just 132 women to the statehouse — a small fraction of the more than 1,900 individuals to pass through the hallways at 24th Street and Capitol Avenue. Wyoming’s representation of women in the Legislature is third lowest in the nation.
And while the reasons are easy to pin down — the lack of pay, unrelenting time commitments, the lack of benefits — the consequences of underrepresentation are often much more difficult to understand. The subtle pressures of being the only woman in the room can often go unrecognized by the opposite sex.
This environment, compounded with the already strict, unwritten codes of conduct for lawmakers, can create a setting where women may feel reluctant to share their expertise.
“It takes courage to bring a bill with your name on it, (especially) one that you know is going to be highly controversial,” Craft said. “That’s a hard thing to do. I know any number of people who choose to take the line of least resistance because that’s a scary thing: to put yourself out there and put yourself on the line where you may not want to.”
It takes courage for anyone to speak up. But in some women’s experience in the Legislature, a voice at the table has to be earned.
As a freshman member of the House of Representatives, longtime environmental attorney Mary Throne sat in a hearing and looked on as a select committee of lawmakers sought to unravel the mysteries of the Clean Air Act, despite having little experience with it. Though she had earned a place on the committee with her years of legal expertise on the subject, Throne admits that as a new member she “was a little hesitant” to speak up.
During the last meeting, she suggested a change to a bill to help it conform to state law, rather than a model standardized by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
“Finally, after months of probably being a little too reticent, I said, ‘Well, I don’t really care what the commission thinks. My view is based on 20 years of experience of Wyoming environmental law,’” recalled Throne, a former House minority leader who is now the deputy chair of the Wyoming Public Service Commission.
From the time she spoke up to the time she left office, Throne was regarded by her colleagues as a subject matter expert. But she felt that was true not because of her decades of work with the subject but because she spoke up and earned that respect.
But Throne, an eventual candidate for governor who became a highly respected lawmaker during her tenure in the Legislature, was a bolder brand of lawmaker. Her experience leaves one to wonder how many good ideas may have gone unspoken over the years or been diluted by the dozens of voices around them. Craft said that women can lend a different perspective on issues, which can often lead to different motivations for passing law, or a different set of questions or concerns in the midst of debate.
“I do think men and women tend to think differently,” Jane Warren, an eight-year member of the House of Representatives from Laramie, wrote in an email. “Men often are aligned with power and status — ‘do I belong to this committee as chair or vote how I believe for more taxes on gasoline?’ — beliefs more often aligned with fear of not getting re-elected and often vote for bills that fit the majority.”
“Oftentimes too they are oriented toward solutions (Ok so give all women who are pregnant a felony if they use meth) versus looking at the consequences of their decisions, or the real reasons for the problems. (Poverty, access, influence of peers, trauma…),” she added. “I think many women are more oriented toward understanding and consensus building.”
Some of the more pointed examples of these differences over the years have come in discussions about bills directed toward victims of sexual and domestic violence. A bill to create a felony-level provision for strangling one’s partner, for example, was almost derailed by contrarian hypotheticals like bar fights or wrestling matches with one’s son. Another carefully written bill that would have allowed stalking victims to leave their leases if they felt threatened was also hung up by “what-if” situations posed on the floor by male lawmakers, despite provisions written into the bill to close those loopholes.
An overabundance of male perspectives can create skewed legislation. It risks excluding perspectives necessary to craft laws that consider everyone’s interests equally. In the instance of the stalking bill, Craft said, she was thinking not of people trying to make an excuse to get out of their lease but of a type of fear to which most women can relate.
“If you have a difference of opinion from many of your party or because you’re looking at an issue differently because of your gender, it may be that much harder for you to speak up and to be heard,” said Deborah Walsh, director of the New Jersey-based Center for American Women and Politics. “And I think that’s a challenge when women don’t have a significant presence not just in the Legislature overall but within their own party caucus.”
Throughout the years, that lack of balance has been seen everywhere from disagreements over long-standing issues like tipped wages (which are two-thirds earned by women ) to the size of the women’s bathrooms in the newly renovated Capitol, which were designed smaller than the men’s rooms until the women on the committee said something.
That said, the experience is not universal.
When Craft, the current director of the Sweetwater County Board of Cooperative Educational Services, entered the Legislature, she was approached by then-Speaker of the House Roy Cohee, who was carrying a bill addressing a provision on professional teaching standards.
“It’s a good bill, and they need it, and they want it,” she remembered him saying. “And I would really like to see this passed, but I don’t have time to work on it.”
Cohee asked the freshman, a member of the opposing party, to carry it and sell it as its sponsor, recognizing her years of expertise as an educator and an administrator.
“It was my very first bill,” Craft said. “And it was given to me by an individual who recognized that we do have talents, skills and expertise outside the Legislature. That was such wonderful mentoring for me because it gave me my voice and this burst of confidence that I had a kind of knowledge that my colleagues didn’t have.”