Adrienne Jones made “double history” last year to become the first woman and first African American to preside over Maryland’s House of Delegates. For the new House speaker, it wasn’t enough to break barriers on her own.
She selected Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, the only House Democrat and only person of color from the Eastern Shore, as her second-in-command. She appointed two women to be deputy speaker pro tem and assistant speaker pro tem. Six of seven standing committees now have a woman serving as either chair or vice chair.
Imbued in Jones’ style is the motto of “Each one, reach one. Each one, teach one.” While women are historically underrepresented in both Maryland and national elected leadership, this kind of mindset could help strengthen the bench of political players who are primed to ascend to powerful roles.
“The fact we have a woman now as a top figure is an encouraging sign,” said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown. “The bench is definitely deeper for women candidates in the future.”
After Republican President Donald Trump’s election, there was an explosion of women seeking office. The biggest historical marker has been U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California joining Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential ticket, becoming the first Black and South Asian woman to accept a major party’s nomination for vice president.
The shift is apparent across local school boards, central committees and county councils, too.
The seven-member Anne Arundel County Council flipped in 2018 from all-male to majority female, the same year women won a majority of seats Howard County’s council. Prince George’s County elected its first female executive in 2018, and Carroll County choose a woman in 2018 to sit on its Circuit Court bench for the first time. In Baltimore’s 2020 Democratic primary, 30% of the City Council candidates were women, compared with 18% four years earlier.
Roughly 40% of state legislators are women in Maryland, placing it sixth in the nation in terms of female representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
While there has been a surge of Maryland women passing policy on the local level, there remains a dearth of leadership at the federal level. The state’s 10-member congressional delegation is entirely male, and mostly white. Maryland is one of only 12 states with no female representation in Washington.
Deckman says the power of incumbency is so strong at the federal level that it’s kept women from advancing.
After Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore died last year, several prominent women sought the open seat, including his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and state Sen. Jill Carter. Voters chose Kweisi Mfume, who had previously represented the 7th District.
Republican Kimberly Klacik is now challenging him, though the district is considered safely Democratic.
There has also never been a female governor in Maryland. Eva Lewis, director of the state’s Democratic Party, said that while there’s so much national focus on the November election, officials here are already looking ahead to 2022 as term limits bar Republican Gov. Larry Hogan from seeking a third four-year term.
Of the 10 counties governed by executives, two are led by women. These roles are considered launching pads for statewide office, and Angela Alsobrooks of Prince George’s County is often discussed as a potential Democratic contender for governor.
“We have a big election in 2022, and I’m very interested to see who is going to be running because it’ll be so open on both sides,” Lewis said.
No Republican women are currently serving as county executives, but some names have come up as potential statewide candidates. Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, the House minority whip, unsuccessfully mounted a U.S. Senate challenge in 2016. Hogan’s administration includes a handful of high-profile women, such as Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz.
So far, the only major candidate to declare his intention to run is a man: State Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Women’s lived experiences often shape the kinds of policies they champion while in elected office. Female legislators have led the way on issues of pay discrimination, domestic violence and health care.
Odette Ramos, the Democratic nominee for City Council for Baltimore’s 14th District, often works out of her campaign office ― which will likely soon become her district office. Her 8-year-old daughter sometimes joins her, using the space as her virtual classroom. As she logged into her third grade class by Zoom on a recent weekday, her mom’s campaign posters were set up behind her.
Ramos knows many other working mothers are also balancing their jobs with overseeing their children’s education during a tumultuous year.
“We have to make policies that support families,” she said. “There’s a perspective we have, because we have so much going on, that we have to be able to focus on policies that help families.”
Ramos, who would be the first Latina elected in Baltimore history, is poised to succeed Democrat Mary Pat Clarke — a longtime councilwoman and stalwart supporter of women in politics. Clarke continuously pushed for more representation in City Hall, but it continues to lag. Only four of the Democratic nominees for the next council are women (one female Green Party candidate is also seeking a seat).
“It was not as good as we wanted,” Ramos said.
Women often face challenges with fundraising and developing the confidence to declare a run for office, experts say. Maryland is home to several organizations that work to help women build a support network and the skills to get elected.
Ramos, for example, came through Emerge Maryland, which recruits and trains Democratic women for local office. Similar groups, such as Emily’s List, tend to be geared to electing progressive women, rather than conservatives.
“If we’re really serious about building the bench in Baltimore, we have to do it systematically, and we have to do it right,” Ramos said.
She’s encouraged by the city’s efforts to support the public financing of campaigns. Voters approved the creation of a Fair Elections Fund to limit big money’s influence by providing matching funds to qualified candidates for mayor, City Council and comptroller who pledge to refuse contributions from corporations and PACs.
Proponents say it will help level the playing field and make it easier for people from underrepresented groups, including women, to have a shot.
Jones has confidence Maryland as a whole will make progress, too.
In her short tenure, she’s had to govern through a global pandemic, while pushing for increased funding for public schools and historically Black colleges.
But on a much smaller scale, she also identified a problem that was long overlooked by her predecessors. For decades, men had access to more bathroom stalls off the House floor. Women would, meanwhile, have to wait in longer lines for fewer toilets, potentially missing out on important legislative action.
Jones wasn’t having it. She rearranged the layout so there were three stalls for both — as well as adding a gender-neutral bathroom and a lactation room. Changing tables were also added to the public men’s room.
This “potty parity,” Jones said, likely wouldn’t have come under a male speaker.