Take a look at the way power works today along gender lines in Virginia’s General Assembly. Now blink. Everything is about to change, astonishingly and for the better.
In the current, Republican-led legislature, women chair just two of 25 standing committees, one in the Senate and one in the House of Delegates. When Democrats take control of both houses in January, women will hold leadership positions almost everywhere you look, not just challenging the old boys’ club in Richmond but rendering it utterly obsolete. It’s about time.
In the House of Delegates, Democratic women will occupy the two top slots — speaker (Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax) and majority leader (Charniele Herring of Alexandria) — and chair at least three critical legislative panels, including the House Finance Committee, which exercises dominion over tax legislation. Its leader will be Del. Vivian Watts of Fairfax.
In the Senate, Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax will be the majority leader, a position he has held before. But Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, who will be the Democratic Caucus chair, and Sen. Janet Howell of Fairfax, who will chair the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees both taxing and spending bills, will exercise much power. Democratic women will chair several other key Senate committees.
Women have made recent strides in a number of state legislatures, notably Maryland’s, where Del. Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, was elected speaker of the House this spring. Still, the change was an especially long time coming in Virginia’s legislature.
In its 400-year history, fewer than 100 women have been elected to the General Assembly, as against more than 9,000 men. Forty-one of those women will be among the 140 lawmakers who convene in Richmond in January. That’s still a modest portion, but they will punch above their weight given their leadership roles. The last woman to wield comparable clout was the late Del. Dorothy Shoemaker McDiarmid, a Fairfax Democrat who chaired the House Appropriations Committee in the 1980s. She left office 30 years ago.
Democratic women in the 2020 General Assembly have a chance to make other sorts of history by their votes and management style. They could help push through the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort that petered out nationally in the 1980s but could conceivably be revived if Virginia becomes the 38th state to back it — the number required for ratification. They are also in strategic positions to add muscle to gun control laws, ease access to abortions, expand voting rights and promote clean energy. Critically, their leadership will be key if Virginia is to end partisan gerrymandering by amending the state constitution to create a bipartisan commission to draw voting maps for legislative and congressional races.
Already, they have made history by starting to right a historical imbalance.