When it comes to women in politics, Maryland has been a national leader for decades. It was the first state to have a bipartisan women’s legislative caucus, and it ranks seventh nationwide in terms of the portion of women in the state legislature.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski is a large part of the reason for Maryland’s legacy of woman leadership, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. A 30-year Senate veteran, Mikulski is known as the “dean” of women in the chamber and a leader on women’s rights.
Mikulski is retiring when her term ends in January, and on Tuesday, Maryland voters elected Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen to fill her seat. The result is Maryland’s first all-male congressional delegation since 1971.
“To think that her state will now not have any representation by women in its congressional delegation is surprising and disappointing,” Walsh said.
Mikulski is one of two women leaving the Maryland congressional delegation in January. U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards gave up her House seat to run for Mikulski’s Senate seat, but lost to Van Hollen in the primary.
During that race, Edwards and her supporters said she was the more logical choice to continue Mikulski’s legacy.
Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga made the same argument about herself in the general election.
“Women offer a different perspective and lawmaking is all about diverse opinions at the table,” she said on election night. “Look, more than 60 percent of the voters in Maryland are women.”
She said that as a woman, she better understands the needs of working women.
Yet Van Hollen enjoyed the endorsements of Mikulski, Edwards and several women’s groups.
During a debate last month on WAMU radio, he pledged to continue one of Mikulski’s priority issues, equal pay for women.
“I’ve been endorsed by the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, partly because I support the idea that women who work hard should be paid the same as a man who does the same job with the same qualifications,” he said. “I have a daughter, Anna. I hope that she will get equal pay for her equal work.”
But speaking Tuesday night, state Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez said having an advocate for women’s rights doesn’t eliminate the need for woman legislators.
"It's not against Chris [Van Hollen]. It's about Maryland's delegation,” she said. “Why is it that we find that it's acceptable for our party to support men and not to make more of an effort to identify and support woman candidates?"
She said the goal should be a congressional delegation with a 50-50 gender divide. After all, more than 51 percent of the state’s population is female.
Michele Swers, who specializes in women in politics at Georgetown University, said in recent years, women’s rights issues have become more closely aligned with party politics than gender. These days, a Democratic man is more likely to vote for abortion rights than a Republican woman.
But women-focused legislation also needs a champion to make sure it passes.
“I think the Democratic women are more likely to build the coalition of support for it, maybe, than a Democratic man would,” she said. “I would expect that Chris Van Hollen will be very supportive of women’s rights and women’s issues, but he might not be as active on them as Barbara Mikulski was.”
Getting women to run isn’t always easy.
State legislatures can act like a baseball team’s farm system, providing a stepping stone for women hoping to run for Congress, Swers said. Groups like Emily’s List train and fundraise for woman candidates.
And having women in power inspires more women to run.
“So the states where you see, like in California and Washington state where you have two female senators, it’s considered more normal for women to be running for office, and then that has an effect down ballot with other women being willing to throw their hat in the ring,” Swers said.
Nationally, there have been 46 female U.S. senators. Maryland has only ever had one.
Karen Hosler contributed reporting.