For the first time—a historic first, in fact—Orange County is sending an all-female delegation to the N.C. General Assembly.
As Orange Democrats celebrate the Election Day victories of Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, Rep. Verla Insko and Rep.-elect Valerie Foushee, it's the same story in rural Chatham County, which will be represented in Raleigh by Kinnaird and Deb McManus, the Siler City Democrat who secured the House District 54 seat.
McManus, who defeated Republican Cathy Wright, occupies the seat held by longtime Democrat Joe Hackney, who is retiring this year.
For Democrats, it's a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy election in which their party was routed in both chambers and in the governor's race.
Carol Teal is the executive director of Lillian's List of N.C., an organization that lobbies for progressive women in public office. She says the wins for Orange County women, while historic, mask declining female representation in the Legislature, which peaked at 44 members, or about a quarter of the Legislature, in 2007. The General Assembly lost six women in the GOP sweeps of 2010.
Based on unofficial election returns from last week, the new Legislature will include 39 women, or about 23 percent of the Legislature. Less than a third of House seats are held by women; in the Senate, that figure is only 14 percent.
"We still have a really, really long way to go," Teal says.
House Majority Whip Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, says she, like many of the women in her party, was recruited to run for office.
"We're seeing more and more women who are willing to run for office," Samuelson says. "But I still find that generally women need to be recruited. Men tend to step up and run."
Nevertheless, the election of Kinnaird, Insko, Foushee and McManus comes at a pivotal moment for North Carolina women. Republicans now control both General Assembly chambers and the governor's seat, which some say could hasten the national GOP agenda of curbing reproductive rights and cutting cash for women's health services.
Leaders say conservatives could pass additional restrictions on abortion rights, such as requiring parental consent, a push mirrored in state legislatures nationwide. According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, legislative restrictions on abortion have tightened in recent decades. Eight states, including North Carolina, now require an ultrasound procedure prior to an abortion.
And even with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, North Carolina Republicans had enough votes to strip funding from family planning providers such as Planned Parenthood, and to mandate additional abortion restrictions including a waiting period and a required ultrasound.
Samuelson sponsored the abortion legislation.
Matt Hughes, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, says his delegation is well-prepared to stem what he calls "Republican overreach" on these key debates.
Kinnaird, an eight-term Democrat from Carrboro, says Republican control threatens more than just abortion rights.
"For women, you look at the budget very differently than you do from a man's standpoint," Kinnaird says.
She says budget cuts to early childhood education, K–12 teaching positions and the university system affect families and particularly women.
"Without enough women who really understand how serious this is for families and the health of our communities, it's very concerning," Kinnaird said.
Ditto, says Teal, who points out conservative-backed economic reforms—including calls to ax the state's minimum wage laws—are bad news for women, who typically earn less than male workers and, along with children, make up a disproportionate share of the poor.
"Jobs and the economy are real women's issues as well," Teal says.
Hughes said an expected GOP push for more stringent voter identification laws would slam women, who are more likely to face name-change complications with voter registration.
"One key thing will be whether or not we have a moderate governor or a governor who is driven by the far-right agenda," Insko says. "The (GOP) leadership last year was clear that they intend to continue to deal with these cultural issues."
Samuelson, however, indicated Republican lawmakers would focus on the state's economy.
Democrats will likely hold little sway in these debates, with Republicans emboldened by a GOP governor and a veto-proof majority.
Insko says it will be key that her party offers proposals, rather than simply acting to derail GOP initiatives. "We all have a new job description," Insko says. "We're all retraining ourselves to be effective as the opposition party."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Men on top."