KY Women’s Legislative Caucus: Shaping the Future of the Commonwealth
By Leah Childs, Kentucky Democratic Party Intern
Women in Kentucky outnumber men by a little more than one and a half percent. Although slight, this majority has yet to be reflected in the makeup of the Kentucky General Assembly; even now, with a historical number of female elected officials, women account for only 22.5 percent of the state legislature. As this number increases, so does the capacity for women to influence change. One notable impact of support for this growing body of legislators is the creation of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, formed just four years ago.
“Caucuses are folks that come together around a common issue, ideology, theme, etc. In this case, the Women’s Caucus…is a group of people who want to come together and talk about issues that are important to women in our society,” explained former Representative Sannie Overly.
Overly was the first woman in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be elected to House leadership in 2013 — she is also a Democrat. The lawyer and former engineer for the Kentucky Department of Transportation was also the first woman to chair a budget subcommittee, overseeing a multi-billion dollar state road budget. Two years later, on April 22, 2015, Overly would officialize the Women’s Legislative Caucus, something she said was “long overdue.”
Currently, the Caucus consists of 29 members, 9 Republicans and 20 Democrats. While the Women’s Caucus reflects a strong Democratic Majority, the House and Senate are dominated by the Republican Party; thus, nonpartisan efforts established by the Women’s Caucus are significant to ensure issues that might otherwise be overlooked are addressed.
“In the environment we are in, a super minority, Democrats don’t have the votes to push any legislative agenda. It becomes very important to find like-minded folks on the other side of issues,” said Overly. The Women’s Caucus presents an avenue for getting bills attention that would otherwise not get pushed forward. For example, in 2013, Overly partnered with Republican Representative Addia Wuchner on a bill strengthening the state’s human trafficking laws; reaching across the aisle worked, the bill passed with major support from both sides. The Kentucky Law Journal praised the bill for including some of the most proactive provisions in the country, ensuring that victims of human trafficking are treated as such and given proper treatment all while imposing stricter penalties for traffickers.
With the advancement of the #MeToo movement and recent issues of sexual harassment plaguing the Kentucky State Legislature, the Women’s Caucus chose this session to highlight House Bill 60, along with several other bills. HB 60 sought to make sexual harassment an offense in the legislative ethics code, as well as create a process on reporting misconduct. The bill passed the House unanimously on Feb. 28th and was received in the Senate. It unfortunately stopped there, and did not pass on to the governor’s desk. Overly attributes the success it saw in the House, and any future success, to bipartisan support garnered through the Women’s Caucus. “If it passes, it will be because she [Democrat Representative Kelly Flood] was able to put partisanship aside and work closely with Republican Representative Moser,” said Overly.
Like HB 60, there will always be setbacks; what is important, is the trust that is built through the bipartisan process that can possibly shape future success. “Hopefully the Caucus grows, and as any Caucus grows it gains influence and power within the body… That’s a very positive thing,” Overly said.
Bringing more female voices forward could also mean more dollars directed towards the communities that elect women to represent them. Between 1984 to 2004, female legislatures sent 9% more funding back to their districts than their male colleagues nationwide. This translates into programs like Pre-K, family leave policy, and money towards fixing infrastructure.
Traditionally, women choosing to run for elected office might face obstacles different than their male counterparts. For example, a woman trying to campaign for a position could also have the responsibility of providing childcare, completing housework, while at the same time balancing a full-time job. Fortunately, Overly says the landscape is changing. Women, like her, are making their way to the Capitol and creating support systems like the Caucus to ensure that even as a minority their voices have value.
“If you are a Kentucky Woman who has an interest in politics I would say now is the time, your voice is needed…the Commonwealth needs you,” said Overly.