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More woman than ever are serving in state legislatures, but that's not the case in Tennessee

Stephen Jerkins

There will be 2,376 women serving in state legislatures across the U.S. in 2023. That’s slightly above last year’s number, which set a record. But in Tennessee, the trend is going in the opposite direction. A year ago 23 of the 132 members of the General Assembly were women, and in the upcoming session there will be 19. The lowest amount since 1998.

Nationwide, close to 32% of state legislators are women, but in Tennessee only 14% of the General Assembly are women. That ranks the state 49th for gender diversity in state legislatures.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, says it’s a troubling trend.

“The fact that in Tennessee right now, about 14% of the legislature is made up of women means that women’s voices are not being heard. They’re not part of the debate, they’re not part of policy conversations and that’s not good for women,” said Walsh.

Walsh says fewer women means it’s less likely that issues such as health care or social services for families will be made a priority.

“We know that women are more likely, and this is true across ideologies, more likely to have as a priority issues effecting women, families, and children on their own agenda,” said Walsh.

For example, in the past session two Black lawmakers Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, and Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, sponsored a bill that prevents employers from discriminating against employees who wear ethnic hairstyles.

One of newly elected women lawmakers is state Sen. Charlane Oliver of Nashville.

“It is very concerning and problematic that our legislature is trending towards a patriarchy,” said Oliver about the decline in female representation.

Oliver, a Democrat, says while she’d like to see more women running for office, ideology is also important, especially on issues like abortion.

The passage of Tennessee’s all-out abortion ban, called the “Human Life Protection Act,” was sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Susan Lynn, but opposed by many women legislators on the other end of the spectrum — proof, Oliver says, that women are not a monolithic voting bloc.

“It’s not enough just to be a women in the legislature. We need more women who are pro-choice, who are pro-health care, who are pro-human rights, who are willing to speak up against injustice. And so that to me matters,” said Oliver.