GRAND FORKS — A fortnight ago, Governing Magazine published an article headlined, “The Rise of Women in State Legislatures.” That got me wondering, especially with the emergence of women’s issues as a dominant theme in this year’s session. How does North Dakota compare? Pretty well, as it happens.
Nationwide, about 30% of state legislators are women, “the highest number ever,” the magazine proclaimed. In North Dakota, the percentage is not quite 23%. That’s 32 women legislators out of a total membership, in both houses, of 147. In the House, 21 of 94 members are women. In the Senate, the number is 11 of 47.
North Dakota bucks the partisan trend. Nationwide, about twice as many women legislators are Democrats as are Republicans. In North Dakota, it’s roughly the opposite. Of course, that reflects the overwhelming numbers that Republicans enjoy in both chambers. Of women House members, eight are Democrats, 13 are Republicans. In the Senate, four are Democrats and seven are Republicans.
Although more women legislators are Republicans, women make up a larger percentage of the Democratic caucuses, since Democrats are scarce in both chambers. It follows then that women legislators have more prominent roles in the Democratic caucuses. The Senate minority leader is a woman, Joan Heckaman of New Rockford. Her assistant is Erin Oban of Bismarck. Kathy Hogan of Fargo is minority caucus leader. In the House, Alisa Mitskog of Wahpeton is assistant minority leader and Gretchen Dobervich, another Fargoan, is caucus leader. In both the House and Senate, Republican leadership is exclusively male.
Republican women are represented among committee chairs in both houses. Women chairing Senate committees are Judy Lee of West Fargo, who heads the Human Services Committee, and Diane Larson, chair of the Judiciary Committee. Both of these are weighty assignments. Former state lawmaker Kelly Armstrong chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee until he moved to the U.S. House, where he sits on its Judiciary Committee.
Another woman, Kristen Rohrs of Fargo, is vice chair of the Human Services Committee.
Perhaps the most strategically placed woman in the Senate is Karen Krebsbach of Minot, who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee – the committee chaired by Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks. For 32 years, Krebsbach has used the position to look after Minot’s interests, reprising a role long played by Rep. Brynhild Haugland, who represented a Minot district for 52 years — still a record for legislative service nationally. Haugland is enshrined in the state’s Roughrider Hall. She served from 1938 to 1990 and died in 1998.
(Governing Magazine highlights Sephronia Thompson, who has been a member of the Texas State Senate since 1973, a total of 48 years, the current service record among legislators. See the stories at governing.com.)
In the House, no women are committee chairs, five are vice chairs. The House Appropriations Committee has three women members out of 21.
North Dakota has some claim to female firsts among state legislators. Minnie Craig was the first woman to serve as speaker of any state House of Representatives, in 1933. Two women have presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor, Republican Rosemarie Myrdal of Edinburg, who wielded the gavel through four sessions starting in 1993, and Democrat Ruth Meiers of Ross, who presided over the 1983 session.
That’s as far as position takes us. As for policy, women members are all over the spectrum. This is obvious in reviewing the two highest profile “women’s” issues in this session. These were the move to rescind the state’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the expulsion of Rep. Luke Simons of Dickinson, who was charged with sexual harassment.
Sen. Janne Myrdal of Edinburgh — daughter-in-law of the former lieutenant governor — pushed for repeal of the ERA, both in committee and on the floor of the Senate, and she crossed over to the House side to argue her case before the House Judiciary Committee. It’s probably fair to call Myrdal the most conservative of Senate members. The “most liberal” label might go to Fargo’s Sen. Hogan.
In the Simons case, Rep. Emily O’Brien, a Republican from Grand Forks, was a principal complaining witness. Two women members of the House voted to acquit him. Both, Vickie Steiner of Dickinson and Kathy Skroch of Lidgerwood, have been connected to the right-leaning Bastiat Caucus, of which Simons was an outspoken member. Skroch has likely earned the “most conservative woman” title in the House. Her “liberal” counterpart could be Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a Fargo Democrat.
Simons’ expulsion actually increased the number and the percentage of women members in the North Dakota Legislature. His replacement is Dori Hauck of Hebron, who took the seat March 15.
Of course, these issues of sexual harassment and repealing the ERA break apart against an ideological litmus test. Repeal would be seen as reactionary, expulsion as progressive.
These issues arose almost exactly 100 years after women gained suffrage with the ratification of the 19th amendment, and 45 years after an earlier legislature voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Probably that’s just a coincidence.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.