Ranks of Alaska female legislators grow

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

JUNEAU (AP) -- After years of lagging behind national totals, Alaska has very nearly caught up with the rest of the nation in electing women, although women still make up less than a quarter of the nation's 7,382 legislators.

Ap Photo/Courtesy Of Cathy Giessel
Ap Photo/Courtesy Of Cathy Giessel
State Sen. Cathy Giessel, of Eagle River is seen in this undated photo.

The Legislature opened its 2011 session in Juneau Jan. 18, with a boost in the numbers of women conducting state business. After gains by female candidates in November, Alaska now has 10 women in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate. There are 40 members of the House, and 20 senators. That puts Alaska within a few hundredths of a percent of equaling the national average.

Eagle River's newly elected senator Cathy Giessel adds to those ranks.

"It's been going really well here," Giessel said from her Juneau office on Jan. 25. "I kind of knew what to expect in that I've been a fan of Gavel to Gavel (live coverage of the Legislature) as an involved citizen.

"What's been a pleasant experience, though, has been the cordial reception that I have gotten from my colleagues across the aisle."

What's unusual about Alaska is that gains in female legislators this year came from Republicans, not the Democrats that dominate down south. Giessel said she's not sure that has anything to do with gender, though.

"I think it has more to do with the values of the people running for the seat," she said. "I think that a huge portion of Alaskans vote their values. I perceive, at least in my district, that gender is not the issue. Folks asked me about the issues. They weren't asking me, 'How are you going to get your hair done in Juneau?"'

While the Alaska Legislature has had a long history of women in powerful positions, until recently the raw numbers of women legislators have been well below their numbers in the population and their numbers elsewhere.

In the 2010 election, Alaska voters elected more women to office, said Katie Ziegler of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Women's Legislative Network.

"That's a state that certainly bucked the trend," she said of Alaska's increase.

While the percentage of women legislators grew in Alaska, it fell nationally. In Alaska, women now hold 23.33 percent of legislative seats, compared to 23.39 elsewhere.

Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, said Alaska's legislators may have somewhat different backgrounds than their Democratic counterparts elsewhere, perhaps adding to their differing political viewpoints.

"I've shot a caribou, I've shot a moose, I love the outdoors," she said. "Alaska is certainly very unique."

Giessel, though, thinks that Alaskans, regardless of their political affiliation, fall into that category.

"Folks on both sides of the aisle hunt and fish," she said. "We are Alaskans."

While Alaskans tend to vote Republican, it doesn't mean they closely follow political lines, either, she said, reiterating the fact that the majority of Alaskans are registered as nonpartisan undeclared.

"Those are the folks who I encountered when I was campaigning," she said.

As a state, Alaska has a somewhat progressive history of including women in public life. When Alaska became an official territory of the United States, the very first act of the new Territorial Legislature was to pass a suffrage bill allowing women the right to vote.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, knows the history well. Her grandmother, Thelma Engstrom, was elected to the Territorial Legislature from Juneau in 1947.

Among the issues she fought for, Munoz said, was "equal pay for equal work."

Some of Munoz' old family mementos show the changing times, however.

When Engstrom was elected, she ran under her husband's name as "Mrs. Elton Engstrom."

Ziegler said changing times are likely to mean more women will run as time passes.

"Studies have shown that there isn't any more a bias at the ballot box," she said.

When controlling for incumbency, open seat and other factors, women do as well as men before the voters.

"The question then is: Why haven't the numbers grown more quickly?" Ziegler said.

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