Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Reena Szczepanski sometimes stops to gaze at the array of photos representing the 1923 state House.
Surrounded by men with short hair and thick mustaches, only one woman’s face appears – Bertha Paxton, the first female legislator in New Mexico.
“You look at this sea of faces and you wonder, Was she invited to all of the events?” Szczepanski asks. “What was it like in caucus? Did people make comments?”
One-hundred years later, Szczepanski is set to take office in a much different House of Representatives.
Women will make up a majority of the chamber and hold at least 37 of the 70 seats, equaling a historic high. And they may break the record, depending on who is appointed to fill an upcoming vacancy in the House.
Szczepanski – a top Democratic legislative staffer who won election last month – will be one of the new members pushing the proportion of female legislators in New Mexico to one of the highest levels in the nation.
New Mexico has ranked sixth or seventh in recent years for the percentage of women legislators, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The state climbed the ranking over the last three election cycles. Since 2018, the number of female legislators in New Mexico jumped from 34 to 49 – a 44% increase.
The trend is more pronounced in the House, where women will make up at least 53% of the chamber. They comprise just 29% of the Senate, which wasn’t up for election this year.
Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, said the increasing share of female legislators in New Mexico generally matches the national trend, though it’s still unusual for a legislative chamber to reach gender parity, as the New Mexico House has.
“Not every state is doing as well,” Sinzdak said. “New Mexico is at the front of the pack in terms of the trend of electing more women to the state Legislature.”
Changing culture, shaping policy
The increasing number of women has consequences inside and outside the Roundhouse.
Michael Rocca, a University of New Mexico political science professor who studies American politics, said research shows female legislators tend to produce a more deliberative government body with increased decorum.
“Where men tend to assume more competitive, combative and authoritative styles,” Rocca said, “women have been shown to emphasize compromise, consensus building and cooperation.”
Sinzdak agreed that women are more likely to “work across party lines,” though the trend bears watching, she said, in an era of increased partisanship.
“Women are not a monolith,” she said. “They have differences just as men do.”
Rocca and Sinzdak also said research shows women are more likely to elevate certain policy issues centering on health care, families and children.
Having “more women in legislatures increases the visibility and importance of these issues for both women and men,” Rocca said.
‘Approaching those in power’
Two of the longest-serving women in the New Mexico Legislature – Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey of Albuquerque and Republican Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs – said the increasing percentage of female legislators has made an impact.
But each of them cautioned against stereotyping or assuming all men or women share the same qualities.
Kernan, who has served since 2002, said she believes women generally “bring different gifts to the Legislature,” including a willingness to work with others.
“I think women have a tendency to be good listeners,” Kernan said.
Chasey, who joined the House in 1996 and is now the majority floor leader in that chamber, said she believes female legislators have helped make the Legislature more accessible to the public.
“Having more women probably has made it perhaps a little easier for the public to feel comfortable approaching those in power,” she said.
The prominence of women in office can also influence voter turnout and trust in government.
“Women are more likely to vote, to trust the government, and to run for office when they see other women elected into office,” Rocca said.
In New Mexico, female leaders in prominent offices may have played a role in increasing the number of women in the Legislature.
• The Governor’s Office has been held by a woman for the last 12 years, first by Republican Susana Martinez and now by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.
• All three of New Mexico’s congressional districts are now represented by women, though that will change next year. Republican Yvette Herrell lost her reelection bid and will be succeeded by Democrat Gabe Vasquez.
• Besides governor, women are set to hold three of the five other statewide executive offices next year: secretary of state, land commissioner and treasurer.
• Women hold three of five seats on the state Supreme Court and seven of 10 on the Court of Appeals.
Sinzdak said women who hold public office help demonstrate that women deserve to hold those positions alongside men.
“There’s a role modeling effect,” Sinzdak said. “Where you see more women serving, women are more likely to run for office and see themselves as possible elected officials.”
Targeted recruiting and training of women may also play a role in the number of female legislators. Emerge New Mexico, an advocacy group that trains Democratic women and non-binary persons, lists more than 100 alumni serving in public office.
The state’s female legislators are disproportionately Democratic. Thirty of the 37 women in the House next year are Democrats, and 10 of the 12 women in the Senate are Democrats.
But Republican women are also shaping the Roundhouse.
Rep.-elect Tanya Mirabal Moya, R-Los Lunas, said she decided to run after her son moved to Texas – a development that “really shook me” and motivated her campaign to bring a new voice to the Legislature.
She’s a high school chemistry teacher who’d never held an elected office.
“For me, I like the fact that we’re seeing more women,” Mirabal Moya said. “We bring a perspective as the nurturers of the family to the Legislature.”
‘A forceful speaker’
Rep.-elect Szczepanski herself is a former executive director of Emerge New Mexico, the group that trains Democratic women.
For years, she also has worked behind the scenes at the Legislature – as a lobbyist and state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and later as chief of staff to outgoing Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who served as House minority leader from 2015-16 and as speaker of the House since 2017.
Egolf didn’t seek reelection this year and will be replaced by Szczepanski, who jumped into the race, taking the advice she’d given other women in her role at Emerge.
As she approaches her first session as an elected official, Szczepanski said she is keeping in mind the first woman to serve in the Legislature.
Bertha Paxton won election in 1922.
Records maintained by the state’s legislative librarians show she was born in Las Cruces, represented Doña Ana County as a Democratic member of the House and served just one term. A note in her legislative file said she was “known as a forceful speaker.”
Paxton, who was in her late 20s during her term, served on the House Educational Committee and is recorded as the first woman to serve as a committee chair. Child welfare and vocational education are listed as issues of interest to her.
“I just think about that – what did she experience and what did she bring to the body?” Szczepanski said. “The responsibility of being the only woman in an entire body is huge.”
Like Paxton, Szczepanski will also break some barriers.
She will be the first just-elected legislator to serve as House majority whip, and she will be the first Asian American in a leadership position at the New Mexico Legislature.
But when she takes the oath of office next month, dozens of women will stand with her.