Guest column: Is 2019 the year of the Louisiana woman?

This fall, the people of Louisiana will once again elect state legislators — both representatives and senators — in every district across the state. But unlike most years, many of those elected will be new to public office because this year, most of those legislators are term-limited and cannot run again for the seats they now occupy. If you’re a voter, odds are that you will be electing new leaders to represent you in Baton Rouge this year.

This presents Louisiana with a rare opportunity to make our Legislature better reflect the people of this state. While women make up 51 percent of Louisiana’s population and 54 percent of registered voters in the state, in 2018 women made up only 15 percent of the Louisiana House and only 13 percent of the Louisiana Senate. Women are similarly underrepresented in virtually all elected offices at all levels across Louisiana. This can change in 2019 as we elect a new group of leaders to guide the future of Louisiana over the next several years.

In 2018, women were elected at record levels to offices in states and communities across the country. The recently inaugurated U.S. Congress has 131 women serving, a record number. We also witnessed women being elected at a record rate to state-level offices from coast to coast to coast. In election cycles as in other things, Louisiana follows its own course, and while most states elected their leaders last year, we will do so this fall. This, then, is the time for women to take their rightful place in elected office in Louisiana.

There are many reasons why we need better representation by women in elected office at all levels:

In 2018 there were only 16 women serving in the 105-member Louisiana House of Representatives and just five women serving in the 39-member Louisiana State Senate.

Only three out of Louisiana’s 42 district attorneys are women, and there are no women serving as sheriff.

Louisiana has not elected a woman statewide or sent a woman to the United States Congress since 2008.

The Women’s Donor Network ranks Louisiana dead last in its ground-breaking National Representation Index. Only 15 percent of elected officials in the state are currently women. That’s all elected officials, from city council members to judges to school board members.

Louisiana continues to be ranked one of the worst places for women, children and families to live in the United States.

Yet multiple studies have shown that women in elected office overwhelmingly support and promote principles like equality and fairness. When women hold public office, they are more actively involved in a variety of issue areas that enhance the well-being of families, including health care, the economy, education and the environment. Women legislators are more responsive to constituents, value cooperation over hierarchical power and find ways to engineer solutions in situations where men have trouble finding common ground.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has published numerous studies on the strength of women holding elected office. Historically, women have outpaced their male counterparts in many areas: introducing bills, collaborating with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, leading on issues that impact families most, and yes, even bringing home dollars to their districts for public projects.

Very few of our elected offices require specific credentials. Anyone can run for almost every position they can vote for. (District Attorneys are an exception.) If a woman can vote for a candidate, she can probably run for the same office. Still, women need more encouragement to run for office than their male counterparts. On average, a woman needs to be asked seven times to run before she commits. We need to recruit and encourage women to run for office at all levels so that our leaders will reflect and respond to the needs and interests of all of the people of Louisiana.

When women run, they win at the same rate that male candidates do. The problem is that not enough women actually run for office. Our state needs you to encourage and support women who have the qualities, capabilities and competencies to serve in office. Everyone knows a woman who should run for office. She may be a teacher, a nurse, a paralegal, a small-business owner or a stay-at-home mom. Ask her to run for office today, while there’s time for the 2019 elections. The people of Louisiana will be better for it.

Melanie Oubre is executive director of Emerge Louisiana, which recruits, trains and supports Democratic women in the state who want to run for elected office.