Sexism in Arizona politics might be here to stay

PHOENIX – Arizona is doing well in regards to gender representation in the state Legislature, but it could take 30 years before the state reaches gender parity in its law-making body.

Arizona is fourth in the nation for female representation in the state Legislature at 38.9 percent, behind Vermont, Nevada and Colorado, leaving 46 states with even fewer women in politics.

Fifty percent of Arizonans are women, yet barely a third serve in elective office. And there’s more reason to have women in politics than simply representation of gender.

“Women have a different leadership style than men do,” Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Glendale, said. “And I think that is something we need to bring to the table.”

Yee said, according to the Future Majority Project, a conservative group working toward gender and minority representation in U.S. politics, she is the highest-ranking female Republican ethnic minority in all of the states. She has been in office for five years, but this is her first year as Senate majority leader.

Many female politicians get their start at the state level, where fewer than a quarter of lawmakers are women nationally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Currently all state legislatures nationally are dominated by white males. And many times, these legislatures are boys’ clubs, commanded by men who, consciously or unconsciously, push women out to the periphery and marginalize them.

Arizona’s Boys Club

Just last week, an example of the disrespectful style so common in male-dominated arenas popped up on the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives when a Republican legislator made a cryptic apology to a Democratic lawmaker.

“Yesterday, I exceeded my authority when I tried to have a colleague removed from my committee. I know that I was wrong. I now know that. I’m very sorry for any angst it might have caused,” Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said.

Later, it was discovered that Rep. Thorpe threatened to call security to removed Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, from a hearing room. The Arizona Capitol Times reported that this describes a pattern of bullying and sexism against women, especially members of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives.

The reality many female representatives shared with the Capitol Times are said to be microagrgessions these women face every day: men showing disrespect, cutting people off, scoffing, taking responsibility for good ideas given from women. 

Sen. Yee is only the second female majority leader of the Senate in Arizona history. The first was Sandra Day O’Connor, 44 years ago.

But House Minority Leader Rep. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said the microaggressions are getting less frequent since she’s started working at the state legislature. She claims this is because the representatives tend to be younger now than they used to be and term limits have been set in place, with 30 percent of the body turning over each election cycle.

Why Don’t More Women Run?

Arizona is doing well compared to the rest of the nation, and female lawmakers like to credit Arizona’s independent, pioneer spirit, saying momentum plays a vital role.

“A lot of that is just kind of that pioneer spirit,” Sen. Hobbs said of the number of female representation in Arizona. “If you look at our history, there’s not a lot of women governors in America – we’ve had four.”

This opinion is mirrored across the aisle.

“You can call [Arizona] the Wild West, but it really is that we’ve got great examples,” Yee said. “We’ve had people from Rose Mofford to Jane Dee Hull being the first and only female speaker in the house, to women who have led in both parties.”

Women convince other women to run for office. It’s a common story for female lawmakers.

“It’s very effective when another woman will ask you to take that leadership role,” Sen. Yee said. “Because she is understanding, you know, of what the woman’s needs are as well as where she can go.”

Sen. Linda Gray, who served in the Arizona State Legislature for 16 years as Yee’s state senator, reached out to Yee about running.

“We had lunch together and she asked me to consider running for office,” Sen. Yee said. “And I got chills. I certainly hadn’t thought of that before, but I had worked for elected officials my entire career.”

It took Yee five years after that conversation to make a decision.

“That conversation got the ball running though,” Sen. Yee said.

Rep. Rios was asked to run by her father, and said she instantly thought, “I couldn’t do that.” Obviously, she could. 

“Women need to be asked more often and nudged more often,” Sen. Hobbs said.

This isn’t specific to state legislators either. Former U.S. Representative and Democratic Senate candidate Ann Kirkpatrick was also recruited also first by friends, then again by her Navajo community.

“Young girls need to see other women in leadership roles,” Sen. Yee said. “So they can look to see if their pathway also can go that direction.”

What Are We Doing to Fix it?

“And if you ever ask anyone, all of those women [state politicians] had great relationships across the aisle,” Sen. Yee said. “So they made it to where they are because they had great relationships with others. It didn’t matter what your party affiliation was.”

But when it comes down to fundraising and increasing the number of women represented in the House, it does matter what your party affiliation is: Republican women tend to have more difficulty running and winning than Democratic women.

“If you look at the number of state legislatures, it’s interesting to note that more women tend to be represented in the Democrat party than the Republican party,” Sen. Yee said, “and that’s also the case at the congressional level. That’s also the case at the corporate level.” 

Much of the reasoning behind this issue becoming partisan is because many of the successful organizations pushing for gender and minority representation are Democrat.

After women decide to run, there are plenty of organizations that are built around the idea of helping them win. One of them is EMILY’s List, a group that has successfully pushed Democratic women toward jobs in Congress and helps raise money to get them elected.

Why do women need more encouragement to run? Women are less likely than men to see themselves in positions of leadership. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 46 percent of men could see themselves as a leader in business or in government, and just 31 percent of women said the same.

Even once women are recruited and run, it’s harder for them to find big donors than it is for men to do the same. A report by Political Parity shows that women receive a larger share of their donations from individual donors than male candidates do, but the donations are so much smaller that it creates an increased gap between funds for male and female politicians.

“This means they have a broader support base but are less likely to have big money supporters,” the nonpartisan organization said. “Greater efforts are required to raise the same amount of money.”

“I think it’s a woman thing – we don’t like to ask for help, so it’s hard to ask for money,” Sen. Hobbs said.

Hobbs received help from Emerge Arizona, a statewide branch of the national Emerge America, a group that helps fundraising and encouragement of democratic female lawmakers.

Will Gender Parity Happen in Arizona?

Don’t hold your breath. If Arizona continues increasing female representation at the same rate it currently is, we’ll reach gender parity some time around the 68th legislature. 

That’s in thirty years.

Just up north, 42 percent of Colorado state lawmakers are women, the highest in the country according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Meanwhile, Wyoming is the lowest with less than 15 percent.

Outside of statehouses, women make up 20 percent of the Senate and 19 percent of the House of Representatives. The number of women in Congress has been increasing over time, but even in the best projections, if the U.S. continues down this road, there won’t be gender parity in Congress until 2043, four years before the Arizona State Legislature reaches it.

“I’m hopeful that what we are seeing is a legislature evolving,” Rep. Rios said. “That we are seeing that we are progressing, albeit slowly sometimes, into a more inclusive, mutually respectful political system in which women are seen on the same level as men by their male counterparts. And that we’ll get there. I think that these younger generations will not consider to stand for discrimination in any form.”

Christianna Silva is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the school of journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at

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