In Louisiana, women represent less than 20 percent of seats in Legislature

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

As the world celebrates Women's History Month, the Louisiana Legislature largely remains a boys club with fewer than one in five of seats held by women.

Twenty-eight of the Louisiana Legislature's 144 seats are held by women, the 45th lowest percentage in the United States, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Those women who are serving − 23 in the House and five in the Senate − say the state would be better served with a larger presence in the Capitol, but barriers include low pay, bearing a traditionally larger burden of family responsibilities than men and less acceptance in political roles.

"The Legislature needs to be a co-ed club, not a fraternity," said Republican Franklinton Sen. Beth Mizell, chair of the Louisiana Legislative Women's Caucus. "In Louisiana, women are revered, but not always respected. It's very much a male hierarchy so we have to be louder and step on some toes."

Louisiana's small group of women lawmakers amplified its collective voice in a way that reverberated throughout the state in 2021 when the legislators became the first to hold LSU accountable for mishandling sexual harassment and violence complaints.

Democratic Baton Rouge Sen. Regina Barrow said those hearings "galvanized" the women lawmakers and elevated their influence.

But their overall numbers remain scant.

Nationally, women make up an average of 32.7% of state Legislatures. In Louisiana, that percentage is 19% despite women making up 51% of the state's population.

"I think about it often," said Republican Turkey Creek Sen. Heather Cloud, a member of Louisiana Women Lead, a group that recruits and mentors women to run for elective office. "One reason we don't have more women in the Legislature is because we often have to juggle jobs and careers while still being the primary homemaker.

"It's a difficult decision both financially and personally to remove ourselves from those responsibilities for long periods of time to be in Baton Rouge."

Cloud said she's able to serve because she and her husband are self-employed, giving her more flexibility and him more time to care for their 16-year-old son at home when she's gone. "Having a family support system is paramount," she said.

State Rep. Mandie Landry, an Independent from New Orleans, said most women can't afford to serve.

Lawmakers' annual salaries are $16,800 for what is technically a part-time job.

"I think the main reason is pay," said Landry, an attorney who has flexibility in her practice. "Most women either have to be retired or wealthy to serve, especially women with children. It's very difficult for them to justify spending so much time working and away and not getting paid."

Landry, too, said because there are so few women in the Legislature she believes they have to take extraordinary measures to make an impact.

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, the Senate's second-highest ranking member, speaks about legislative work in response to a report that details Louisiana State University's repeated mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations.

"I feel like I have to do 10 times the work (of men) and repeat things until I'm blue in the face, but maybe that's just me," she said.

Democratic New Orleans Rep. Candace Newell said she believes low pay and unpredictability are barriers for women to serve. "This isn't a part-time job; it's just part-time pay," she said.

Newell and her colleagues said it's important to have more women's voices in the Legislature to add perspective and diversity.

As an example, Newell passed the Crown Act, which protects Black girls and women from being discriminated against in schools and the workplace because of natural hairstyles.

More:Louisiana has a trigger law to make daylight saving time permanent

"Most of my male counterparts had no idea how big of an issue this is until I explained it to them," she said. "Once I was able to raise their awareness, I won their support. But without more women we're in danger of missing those points of view."

"Diversity of thought and perspectives always leads to better legislation," Cloud said. "That's why it matters."

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.