Groundbreaking House speakers in Delaware and Pennsylvania celebrate Women’s History Month

Women, including women of color, are holding leadership positions in state government in record numbers.

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Delaware House Speaker Valerie Longhurst

Delaware House Speaker Valerie Longhurst celebrates Women's History Month with Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton (on left). (Sarah Mueller/WHYY)

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Women wearing purple stood in the Delaware House on Wednesday, symbolizing women’s rise to power in state governments across the country.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, joined Delaware House Speaker Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and other female lawmakers and advocates at Legislative Hall in Dover as part of Women’s History Month.

The two are the first female speakers in their respective states, both voted into leadership last year.

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There are nine U.S. states that have female speakers. Along with Delaware and Pennsylvania, women are House speakers in Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts.

“That’s a historic high,” said Thomas Little, director of curriculum of development and research for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.

McClinton, who in 2020 became the first woman elected as Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader, is also one of the three female speakers who are Black.

Little said six of the nine speakers are Black and eight of them are Democrats, which is also “historic.”

Speakers Longhurst and McClinton tout their legislative accomplishments, including advocating for expanding voting access, equal rights and reducing gun violence.

Longhurst was instrumental in helping pass Delaware’s Equal Rights Amendment. She also worked to help her party pass legislation expanding access to the voting booth and restricting sales to certain firearms.

“Every generation has showed us that being a woman is to know no bounds,” she said. “We have the suffragettes of the mid-1800s to thank for the right for women to vote. We have women like Rosa Parks to thank for her voice in the Civil Rights Movement. We have women like Jeannette Rankin and Sandra Day O’Connor to thank for being some of the first female ‘firsts’ and showing us it’s possible. But most importantly, we have all the women in this room to thank for showing those in your lives all the different ways that we can exist.”

McClinton has pushed for legislation to outlaw hair-based discrimination, implementing a statewide rape kit tracking system and universal pre-K.

The Pennsylvania speaker said she is fighting for women to have wage parity with men.

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According to Census Bureau data and the National Women’s Law Center, women get paid 84 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Black women earn 69 cents and Latina women earn about 57 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

“This afternoon, one of the things we’re highlighting is the disparities that still exist in pay,” McClinton said. “How can it be that we fought so hard to be able to get into that voting booth, to be able to get into Hollywood, to be able to access all sorts of spaces in spheres of influence, and what some may say positions of power, yet still in too many situations, and offices in corporate America and in public service, we are underpaid?”

Delaware has 16 female state representatives and eight female senators. Pennsylvania has 64 female state representatives. Little said women account for about a third of politicians in 30% of state legislatures across the U.S. It was about 5% for decades until the early 1970s.

“Starting in the early ‘70s, ‘72-’73, there began a really slow but steady, gradual increase up until the early 2000s,” Little said. “Then it kind of leveled out. If you recall the 2018 election, a lot of people called it [an] election of women leaders. There were a lot more women elected to Congress and the Senate, and that trickled down to the state legislatures.”

Retirements in 2017 spurred a turnover in the Delaware General Assembly that brought in 12 new members of the legislature, four in the state Senate and eight in the state House. Some of the new members included Democratic Sens. Laura Sturgeon and Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman and Reps. Melissa Minor-Brown, Kendra Johnson and Krista Griffin. Several of those then-new members are now in leadership positions.

Lockman, the Senate majority whip, said the words of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, were on her mind.

“Our country needs women’s idealism, and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else,” she said. “We definitely have that determination. I know I can be pretty stubborn, I’m not gonna speak for any of my colleagues here. And more importantly, I see such incredible vision and each and every one of us.”

Little said voters are electing more women to leadership positions because they’re seeing them in office and getting things done.

“As the number of women in leadership positions increases, it’s easier to see yourself voting and saying, ‘Look, we see women doing this, we know that they can be effective,’” he said. “So I think it’s both that combination of the increased number of female candidates, but also seeing women in those leadership positions.”

McClinton was also recognized on the Delaware House floor during Wednesday’s session.

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