Women gain political ground in Colo. statehouse
Ryan Summerlin February 2, 2011
DENVER – Rep. Millie Hamner’s days begin at 5 a.m. Hours of catching up on e-mail and phone correspondence are cut short at 9 a.m. when she has to be on the state House floor to hear and vote on proposed legislation. Two days a week the floor work is followed by committee hearings. Other days she is swamped with meetings, caucus work and research on upcoming bills she’ll have to vote on. In between, she has to find time for townhall meetings and manage hundreds of invitations to conferences, forums and events that need legislator support.
“There’s not a lot of time for self-reflection and getting organized,” Hamner said. “It’s just constant motion.”
There was a time when many in the U.S. thought the “constant motion” and high-pressure decisions of government work might be too much for a woman to handle. But Colorado’s women remain today where they have always been: on the forefront of debunking that assumption.
Last month, Hamner, a Summit County Democrat, joined 260 others in the sorority of women who have served in the state Legislature since 1894, when Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to elect a woman.
“I’m just proud to be part of the women’s group,” Hamner said. “In my lifetime I’ve seen so many more opportunities open up for women. When I first started my career (35 years ago) the choices for women were very limited.”
This year, Colorado boasts a higher percentage of women in state government than any other state. Likewise, Summit County now looks to a team of women for political representation in Denver. This year, Summit County voters sent two women, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson for Senate District 16 and former Rep. Christine Scanlan for House District 56 to the capitol. Weeks later, they wound up with three leading ladies when Hamner, former superintendent of the Summit School district, was appointed to take over Scanlan’s seat when she was tapped to join Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration.
“The important aspect to remember is that we should represent the population we are serving,” Nicholson said. “So if half of the population we are serving is women, then half of the Senate should be women.”
This year, it almost is. Women make up 48 percent of Colorado state senators. The state House of Representatives is approximately a third women, and there are more women in the Colorado Legislature in 2011 than there have ever been in the state’s history.
What is unclear is what having so many women in the Statehouse will mean for Colorado politically and whether their gender will give the lady legislators ground to work together across party lines.
“Any time people in the Legislature can find common ground, whether it’s based on demographic status or a common interests, it’s helpful,” said Laura Hoeppner, executive director of the women’s caucus. “They need to be able to relate to each other as human beings.”
The women fall into both parties, though there are more female Democrats this year than Republicans.
But Nicholson, a Democrat from Gilpin County, said she relates to her fellow legislators based on values, not gender, and she does not see specific issues resonating more with women than with men.
“I think it’s a generalization that women govern differently than men do,” Nicholson said. “But because of our own unique personalities, I’m not sure it’s going to make a lot of difference.”