State Senator Debbe Leftwich, D-OKC, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, have announced plans to form a caucus for women serving in the Oklahoma Senate and House of Representatives.
Sen. Leftwich, a former chair of the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, said she was excited about having a legislative coalition for women to focus on issues important to Oklahoma families.
“As a past chair of the Commission, I know when it comes to issues that directly impact women and children, there’s more that unites women legislators than divides us, regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican,” Sen. Leftwich said. “Issues like child care, domestic violence and access to health care are things we all understand and can agree are important to the State Of Oklahoma.”
Rep. Winchester is the first woman in the history of the state to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore. She said she hopes to focus attention on encouraging women to take on more leadership roles in the state.
“Over the last several years I’ve worked with many leadership organizations like Leadership Oklahoma and OU’s NEW Leadership program, as have Sen. Angela Monson and Rep. Jari Askins. We all share a commitment to growing the numbers of women in leadership roles in the state,” Winchester said.
Oklahoma saw slight improvements in the numbers of women serving in the legislature as a result of the 2004 elections. Women now make up 14.8 percent of the legislature.
“We picked up five seats giving us a total of 22 women serving in the legislature. That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re still pretty low in comparison to other states. According to the Center for American Women and Politics we’re 43rd in the nation but it is changing and that’s important for Oklahoma,” Winchester said. “As wives and mothers, we bring a unique perspective to the table. We need that voice in public policy debate.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislature’s, 17 states have Women’s Caucuses that meet regularly and determine legislative priorities. Another 15 have Women’s Caucuses that meet infrequently and are more focused on networking or socializing—that number includes the Women’s Caucus of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. Leftwich said women serving in the State Senate have not had such an organization in the past.
“Creating a formal Women’s Caucus is an excellent way for us to find that common ground and pursue legislation that is not only important to women, but to all Oklahomans,” Leftwich said.
Winchester said while the emphasis of the caucus would be to serve as a resource for women lawmakers, it could have other benefits in the future.
“By raising the profile of women serving in the Legislature, I think we may encourage more women to consider running for public office. Ultimately, I think that’s going to benefit the entire state,” Winchester said.