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Colorado’s 'groundbreaking' parental leave measure for lawmakers could be key to diversifying statehouses

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Colorado House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar with her daughter Marlo at the state Capitol.

Colorado Rep. Daneya Esgar underwent in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to conceive. She and her wife timed it so Esgar, the House majority leader, would give birth last summer, when the legislature was out of session.

“And to me that was just — it kind of hit me over the head like, 'Well, what about families that can't plan exactly when their pregnancy is?'” Esgar said.

The Pueblo Democrat co-sponsored a bill that recently passed the Colorado statehouse giving lawmakers 12 weeks of paid parental leave and an additional four weeks for complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. It comes two years after voters approved a measure granting state residents paid parental leave. Esgar says it was time to offer the same to lawmakers.

“As the legislature becomes more diverse, we've got to adapt and ensure that we're removing any barriers that prevent people – especially women – from running [for] office,” she said. “And we want to make sure that no one should have to choose between representing their community and having a family.”

Colorado has the second-highest percentage of women state lawmakers in the country, which Esgar says was key to her bill's passage. She points to other measures where women were the difference-makers, like a measure she co-sponsored codifying the right to an abortion that became law last month.

“That wouldn't have happened if we didn't have so many women saying, ‘This absolutely has to get done because of what's happening on the federal level. We need to do this this year,’” she said.

Jean Sinzdak, with the Center for American Women and Politics, monitors the number of female lawmakers in statehouses nationwide and how measures like paid parental leave could help achieve parity in legislatures.

“It feels groundbreaking in a way,” Sinzdak said of Colorado’s bill. “It's taken far too long for some of these conversations to happen. But they are happening. And institutions are adapting to the changing demographics of those who are serving.”

The benefits are widespread, she said, “because that means there will be a wider variety of voices serving in these positions.”

In other words, a more diverse group of lawmakers in statehouses stands to better reflect and answer the needs of constituents.

The only state with a higher percentage of women lawmakers is Nevada, where women comprise a slight majority in the statehouse.

Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, is studying the impacts of Nevada’s female majority. She points out that some Western states have long had strong female representation, and traces it back to the way Western territories became states. They needed a certain population level to petition Congress and submit a constitution for approval, and that meant sparsely populated Western territories were eager to add women to their headcounts.

“And then women said, ‘OK, well, we're going to want something out of this. So are you going to talk about giving us voting rights? Do we have property rights?’ So it was a real negotiation, Western style,” Cosgrove said.

This "negotiation" was hardly equitable, though. Wyoming, for example, was the first state to grant women the right to vote back in 1869. But white women were largely the benefactors. For example, Native Americans and Asian immigrants were excluded.

The passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920 was also an exclusionary measure. Black women in Southern states often "risked life, limb and economic deprivation" if they attempted to vote, as Deborah Gray White, an expert in African American and American women's history, has written. It wasn't until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Black women across America were guaranteed the right to vote.

Chasing Equality

At the Nevada statehouse, Cosgrove points to a recent measure rooted in equity that she says is thanks to the state’s women lawmakers – the Nevada Equal Rights Amendment, which will be on the November ballot.

“It says ‘sex,’ it says ‘disability,’ ‘gender identity.’ There's a whole lot more qualifiers that are in that. So more people will be able to say, ‘I have a constitutional right for equal treatment,’” she said.

Cosgrove suspects the measure giving Colorado lawmakers paid parental leave is likely to be replicated in Nevada and other Western states with high percentages of women lawmakers, like New Mexico and Arizona.

But that policy could make an even bigger impact in a state like Wyoming. The so-called Equality State has one of the lowest percentages of women state lawmakers in the nation.

“There's something of a narrative around why there are so few women in the state legislature,” said Jen Simon of the Wyoming Women’s Action Network, which focuses on ways to increase female political representation in the state.

That narrative includes geography. Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, is in the southeast corner of the state, which, for a legislator in, say, Cody, is a six-hour drive – often longer in the winter. Additionally, the citizen legislature pays a paltry per diem that, at most, is $150 per day. Lawmakers also lack access to benefits like health insurance.

“If you had a paid parental leave policy across the board, you would really be signaling that we do want new moms to be here. We do want parents of young children to be here. And I think that that's whether we're talking about maternal leave or paternal leave,” Simon said.

Still, she points out that female political representation is also low at the municipal level, with a relative few becoming county commissioners, mayors, and city councilors. Some of those positions do pay salaries and offer health insurance.

“So I want to just emphasize that there's sort of a larger obstacle somewhere in our system here in Wyoming that we're not getting more women in office at any level right now,” Simon said.

Back in Cheyenne, Wyoming Rep. Karlee Provenza laments that her state’s statutes “definitely demonstrate that we don't have enough female representation.”

When the Laramie Democrat ran for office, people warned her about the state's "good ol' boys network” as it’s known. One result, she says, is the legislature’s inability to pass Medicaid expansion, meaning Wyoming women still get kicked off the insurance program six weeks after they give birth.

“That's bonkers to me,” Provenza said. “It's just something that I can't imagine would happen if we had more female representation.”

Provenza shared a conversation she had with a male colleague that reflects the culture in Wyoming’s halls of power.

“He told me, ‘Don't have children while you're here because it's too hard,’” Provenza recalled. “You know, I'm 32 years old. I'd like to have a family. I also really want to serve my community. And I'm stubborn.”

Provenza says she plans to challenge her colleague’s warning — and use her seat to pave the way for young women behind her.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.