By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
It seemed like any ordinary ladies’ night out, with drinks, laughter, food and lively conversation. But a savvy observer might have noticed that everyone at this gathering was a member of the Colorado Legislature.
Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster.
The Tuesday gathering at Racine’s Restaurant was, in fact, the first meeting of a newly constituted Legislature’s Women’s Caucus, providing an opportunity for woman lawmakers to form relationships, build a community and focus on the effect of legislation on Colorado women.
Their celebration recognized a significant accomplishment — when the results of November’s election were tallied, with 40 percent, Colorado had a higher percentage of women in the Legislature than any other state. Nationally, the average is 24.2 percent.
“The fact is, that women are more than the majority of the population in this country, and it is only appropriate that we are catching up to where we belong,” said Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver. “I think there are really dynamic women on both sides of the aisle, from both chambers, who have come together to say, ‘Let’s do this.’”
“I wanted to get the conversation started tonight and see where we can go with this,” said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, who led the festivities as an informal moderator.
“We are breaking new ground, and, through our efforts, we also want to connect the Colorado Legislature to larger national organizations for women,” she said.
This isn’t Colorado’s first Legislative Women’s Caucus, but the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton and the vice-presidential nomination of Sarah Palin seemed to give it new energy.
That energy could be felt in the room as the women continued to add more tables and pull up more chairs as their numbers grew.
“Considering we have the highest number of women in the Legislature, I think this is a great thing, and it is very exciting,” said Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora.
Issues discussed at the first meeting included education and health care reform — although no solid suggestions emerged from the discussions.
They also celebrated bipartisan efforts in the Legislature to raise consciousness on such issues as cervical cancer, child care and breast cancer research.
“I don’t think the public cares which letter is by your name,” said Court. “They care about what public policy is done that is going to be good for the people of this state.”
Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, attended the caucus and expressed her excitement on being a part of the evening and to be a member of the Legislature with the most women.
“I think this is great and we need to seize the opportunity and continue to encourage women to get involved in public policy,” she said.
Looper also recognized that the percentage of women in the Republican Party has fallen.
“We need to invite (Republican women) to be a much bigger asset to changing policy on issues in Colorado that are important to them,” she said.
Currently, there are more female Democratic state senators than male. In the House, half of the 38 Democrats are women.
On the Republican side, Nancy Spence, of Centennial, is the lone Republican woman in the Senate, and eight of the 27 Republicans in the House are women.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, even with the growing number of women in the Legislature, in 2009 the U.S. Congress has only 17 percent of its seats held by women.
On average, said the NCSL, women hold 24 percent of legislative seats in the 50 states, representing an increase of less than 4 percentage points over the past 15 years.
One theme emerged during the evening’s discussions — the need to continue encouraging bipartisan efforts on woman-centered issues.
“I thought this would be a good launching point, and I organized a bipartisan group of hosts to help lead the charge,” Middleton said. “It is important for us to build those relationships and to make connections across the aisle in order to see where we want to go with this. I think if we let this caucus unfold and kind of let it determine for itself which direction we want to go, we will make more progress than we think is possible.”