Landscape remains mostly unchanged for female reps in Oklahoma

Stephanie Bice

Stephanie Bice (Provided)

OKG-35Female representation at the statehouse, which was covered last year in Oklahoma Gazette, has long been a challenge in Oklahoma. A cover story from a 1985 issue of the Gazette highlights how far we’ve come and how far we’ve fallen.

“Women are beginning to think in terms of running for office, not coffee,” said Wanda Jo Stapleton (formerly Peltier), former chairwoman of Oklahoma Women’s Political Caucus, in a Gazette article published in 1985. “That attitude is beginning to catch on after about 10 years of effort.”

Stapleton’s quote in the article titled “Women make selves at home in House and Senate” was written at a time when six newly elected female legislators pushed Oklahoma’s total female representation to 13.

That number has fluctuated over the past three decades, but today’s Oklahoma Legislature includes 19 women, an increase of just a handful and the second lowest percentage in the nation. It is also one fewer female than last year’s Legislature.

“Women are more likely to need to be recruited to run,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, in a 2014 Gazette article on women at the state capitol. “That means there needs to be the sort of infrastructure or individuals that are asking women to run. That is an essential key.”

Dittmar said the lack of female recruitment by major political parties and organizations is partially to blame for the low national level of female lawmakers and Oklahoma’s near-bottom rate.

Those female lawmakers elected in 1985 would have probably envisioned a larger gain 30 years later.

“I think women are beginning to place more value on the things they do, beginning to realize they have made important contributions,” said 1985 Rep. Lina Larason, an Oklahoma City Democrat. “But, I’m still looking forward to the day when we won’t say ‘women’ or ‘men’ but people who are qualified, experienced and capable.”

Thirty years later, women may be viewed as stronger lawmakers despite the continued low rate of elected officials. Oklahoma has a low rate of women members of the House or Senate but does have a female governor who was first elected in 2010 in a race between two female candidates.

While more women in the state capitol would help the Legislature grow closer to the state demographic profile — which includes a population more than 50 percent female — there are many who believe the first priority is electing qualified candidates, not just women or men.

“I don’t know if it needs to be a better ratio,” newly elected state Senator Stephanie Bice said a few months before her victory in 2014. “It needs to be quality people first and foremost.”

Comparing an article from 1985 with today shows the state has made some progress in electing female politicians, but Oklahoma still ranks near the bottom when it comes to the Legislature adequately reflecting state demographics.


Print headline: Woman’s world, Thirty years later, the state still struggles with its female legislator numbers.

Ben Felder

Ben is an urban affairs reporter covering local government and education in Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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