Sen. Horacena Tate (left), D - Atlanta, and Sen. Nan Orrock, D- Atlanta vote against engrossing a bill. Behind them are Sen. Elena Parent, D - Atlanta, Sen. Nikema Williams, D - Atlanta, and Sen. Sally Harrell, D - Atlanta. The legislature was in session for the 23rd day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia Legislature has more female lawmakers, more bills about women

After winning a record-breaking number of seats last year, Georgia’s female lawmakers have set their sights on tackling issues that range from breast cancer detection to private rooms on the Capitol grounds for nursing mothers.

Not only do they say they feel empowered by the growing ranks of female colleagues in the chambers, but women are participating in the political process and showed up at the polls in large numbers in 2018. That’s led to a flurry of female-centered legislation making its way through the General Assembly.

The power women showed at the polls, some female lawmakers said, has helped persuade their male counterparts to join them in moving bills through the legislative process.

Female lawmakers are pushing efforts to require doctors to inform women that having dense breast tissue could make it difficult to detect cancer, to establish a room on the Capitol grounds where mothers could nurse a child or pump breast milk, to waive a tax on menstrual products and to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat who’s served in the Legislature since 1987, said it’s easy to see the different way legislation is being handled this year.

“There is a sea change,” Orrock said. “To see a lactation bill move forward? In the past, that’s something that would have been very problematic. … Some of the conversations have been a little squeamish before. But the change is a reflection of the growth around women’s issues.”

The proposals have met a mixed response, House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper said.

House Bill 62, legislation sponsored by Cooper that addresses dense breast tissue, has sailed through the legislative process, receiving a unanimous vote in the Senate on Tuesday. It’s now headed to the governor’s desk. 

Meanwhile, an initial burst of excitement around ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which at first drew support from Republican men and women, has all but sputtered out since it was opposed by anti-abortion forces.

Cooper, a Marietta Republican, said while she’s not sure the increased number of women serving in the Legislature is drawing more attention to proposals that focus on women, she welcomes the recognition.

“I’m certainly glad for any attention to issues that help women and children and just Georgians in general, especially as it relates to health,” she said.

The 2018 election saw a record number of women running up and down the ballot. That led to women making up 30.5 percent of Georgia’s Legislature, up from 25 percent in 2017 and 20 percent 10 years ago, according to an analysis by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Of the 72 women serving in the 236-member Georgia General Assembly, 55 are Democrats, 17 are Republican.

Women make up about 51 percent of Georgia’s population and accounted for about 52 percent of the 3.9 million people who voted in November.

Female senators are also leading the fight against a change to the chamber’s rules that requires people who believe they've been sexually harassed by a senator or staff member to file charges within two years. Previously there had been no time limit. 

The new rule was pushed through on the first day of the legislative session by a vote of 33-22, with only one woman — a Republican — voting for the change. Now lawmakers are working to revisit the policy and expect to reach a compromise in the next week.

Having more women in the Legislature means that more are filing bills that align with their life experiences, said Tracy Adkison, the president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.

“That’s why it’s so important to have a government that is reflective of the community that it’s serving,” Adkison said. “We know that oftentimes men are not comfortable even discussing our issues, never mind creating legislation for our well-being.”

That’s led state Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat, to again file a proposal to remove what’s called the “tampon tax.”

Buckner said women are unfairly taxed when buying tampons and other menstrual items — products classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as medical devices. She has pointed out there is no equivalent product for men.

Buckner said she thinks taxing menstrual products has been an oversight, and she introduced House Bill 8 to rectify it.

Georgia waives the 4 percent tax on other nonprescription medical devices, such as diabetic test strips and insulin syringes. Ten states have abolished similar taxes.

The plan hit a speed bump during a Wednesday hearing on the bill, when the House’s most powerful female legislator, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, proposed funding menstrual products in schools in low-income areas and community health centers.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said while he’s noticed a number of female-centered bills being introduced, he feels it’s unfair to say men don’t care about the issues.

“Women have been engaged for a long time,” the Carrollton Republican said. “When a situation has been brought to our attention, we’ve acted on it.”

Dugan agreed that sometimes an issue that affects women isn’t at the forefront of a man’s mind.

“I don’t often spend a lot of time during the day talking about menstrual pads,” he said.

Another topic that male lawmakers have been uncomfortable talking about in the past is an effort to establish a room on the Capitol grounds for women who are nursing children or need to pump breast milk. State Sen. Jen Jordan called her proposal, Senate Bill 4, a “no-brainer” — especially with so many women serving in Legislature.

The Atlanta Democrat said that while she is working on several bills that focus on women, she didn’t join the state Senate to advocate for women’s issues. But when she got to the chamber for her first legislative session last year, Jordan said she recognized the body had been a boys club for a long time.

“I’m no stranger to misogyny,” said Jordan, an attorney. “But I was blown away by where we are as an institution.”

For example, she said, shortly after joining the Senate, a male lawmaker called her to his office and gave her some unsolicited advice: “He told me I needed to smile more and that maybe I should bring my children to the floor of the Senate to make me more relatable.”

State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, an Atlanta Democrat, who has served in the Legislature off and on since 1985, said she hopes women in both political parties can choose legislation to rally behind.

“What I do believe we can do is to harness our collective power and get bills passed that help women, that help families and that really help everybody,” she said.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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