Fifty years ago, the handful of women lawmakers in Maryland didn’t even have easy access to a bathroom during voting sessions. And when they asked for one, the speaker of the House of Delegates called a delegate up to the rostrum, presented her with a fur-covered toilet seat and appointed her chair of the “Ladies Restroom Committee.”
That lawmaker — the late Del. Pauline Menes of Prince George’s County — was so frustrated by the dismissal of women’s needs that she and other lawmakers formed the Maryland General Assembly’s Women’s Caucus in 1972, believed to be the first organization of its kind in the nation.
But as with most political discussions about bathrooms, it wasn’t just about the bathrooms.
Women lawmakers also were livid that they were being shut out of weekly meetings between the governor and top male politicians. Menes wasn’t allowed in, despite her supposed leadership of the restroom committee. And Sen. Mary L. Nock of the Eastern Shore wasn’t invited either, even though she held the much higher-ranking role of Senate president pro-tem.
“We’re getting a little annoyed by all the humor … and the lack of appointments,” Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams of Baltimore told The Baltimore Sun in 1972 as the women’s caucus was launched. “It reflects an attitude on the part of men in the General Assembly and the positions of leadership that women are not at the same level of competency and expertise.”
(That story was written by a male reporter, who led it off by noting that male lawmakers had their feathers “slightly ruffled” by the formation of the women’s caucus. The story quoted then-House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe as saying the women were an “oversensitive” minority.)
The women delegates finally got their own bathroom in 1986. Fast-forward to today: Women now chair several committees and hold powerful political positions, including House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones. She’s the first non-male and nonwhite presiding officer in the General Assembly’s history.
One of Jones’ first moves when she was elected to her post in 2019? Expanding the women’s restrooms adjacent to the House of Delegates chamber.
“I hope it will alleviate any wait times for members during the legislative session, as well as firmly communicate the House’s support of gender inclusivity,” Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, wrote in a memo announcing the restroom renovation.
Once severely outnumbered and marginalized, women lawmakers now hold significant power in Annapolis politics.
“Now, we’re 78 strong and have a woman who is speaker of the House,” said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George’s County Democrat and chair of the Women’s Caucus. “Things have changed a lot in the last 50 years.”
To be sure, the women are still outnumbered, holding 41.5% of the 188 total seats for state senators and delegates.
But where it once was rare to see a woman senator or delegate head up a committee, now there are four women chairs among the 10 major standing committees. Women also lead joint committees, special committees and county delegations. The second-in-command in each chamber is a woman, House Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes and Senate President Pro Tem Melony Griffith.
The Maryland General Assembly has more gender diversity than many other state legislatures, which had an overall average representation of 30.6% women in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Nevada is tops with 61.9% women in the legislature; West Virginia is worst with 11.9% women.)
While women have power on their own, they’re still working to have a stronger voice as a group.
Healey recalls one time in the 1990s, when the Women’s Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland both had issues with a bill regarding contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses. Members of both caucuses walked off the House of Delegates floor together to make their point — leaving the House without a quorum and unable to conduct business.
Even so, the Women’s Caucus doesn’t currently hold the same political influence as some other groups, particularly the Black Caucus, which has played a pivotal role in shaping legislation ranging from legalizing medical marijuana to allowing gambling on sports.
Healey said she hopes that as the Women’s Caucus enters its 50th year, it can marshal its members into stronger advocacy on behalf of women statewide.
“Our numbers have grown and we’ve moved into leadership across the board in both houses,” Healey said. “We’re kind of at a crossroads, I think.”
She would like to see the caucus vote on its priority bills earlier so they can prepare a more forceful campaign in support of chosen bills.
Del. Trent Kittleman, a Howard County Republican who chaired the caucus in the 2020 pandemic-shortened session, said the caucus has mounted a perpetual, but so far unsuccessful, effort to vote earlier and speak more loudly.
If caucus-supported bills can be identified early, Kittleman said, “then we can create a testimony that is impactful rather than just have someone on the committee say the women’s caucus support it.”
One challenge facing the caucus — which some see as a strength — is that it has membership from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans, but the caucus has a policy that an endorsed bill must have the support from at least some of the Republican members.
In recent legislative sessions, the Women’s Caucus has found bipartisan support on bills protecting domestic violence victims, supporting pregnant students, combating sex trafficking and allowing tax breaks for donations to diaper banks.
The caucus has avoided wading into thornier issues, given partisan differences, such as proposals on access to abortion procedures or requiring employers to give workers paid family leave.
“It’s important for us to be able to have bills that have bipartisan approval,” Kittleman said. “For anything to be bipartisan these days, I consider it to be a real coup.”
The leadership of the caucus also moves between Democrats and Republicans. After Healey, a Democrat, finishes her turn as president, the next president is slated to be Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican representing parts of Harford and Baltimore counties.
The caucus represents not just ideological and political differences, but it also has broad geographic, racial and generational representation. Del. Edith Patterson, the caucus secretary and a Charles County Democrat, said younger lawmakers have brought up issues such as accessibility of private areas in workplaces for employees to pump breastmilk.
“We represent the diversity of the state,” Patterson said.
Sometimes, though, the common experience of being a woman means there’s no need for explanation on why an issue is important.
“I think it’s made a real difference in the type of laws we pass,” said Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat and past caucus president. “We’ve lived many of these challenges.”
The Women’s Caucus has also served as a sounding board for new members learning how to navigate the legislative process and address constituent concerns. Caucus members also get a chance to connect with lawmakers who have different areas of expertise and interest.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, an Eastern Shore Republican, said she’s formed professional relationships as well as friendships through the women’s caucus. That’s led to teaming up with other women lawmakers, including Democrats, to promote legislation outside of the caucus’ priorities.
“Through the Women’s Caucus, you realize the interests and strengths of your colleagues,” she said. “You see they’re interested in this and you have a bill your constituents are asking you to be involved with. You can find that bipartisan interest and support.”
For example, Carozza said she’s worked with other women’s caucus members to pass bills on drunken driving penalties and allowing businesses to voluntarily have epinephrine pens available for customers with allergic reactions.
The caucus has also taken on issues beyond legislation and outside of the State House.
After a group of women veterans made a presentation to the women’s caucus several years ago, members were inspired to do more for them. They’ve since worked to honor women in service, from World War II veterans to future military leaders in university ROTC programs.
This fall, after reviewing applicants for a vacant seat on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, the caucus endorsed a female applicant and sent a letter of support to Gov. Larry Hogan.
The caucus also has promoted Women’s History Month each March and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave some women the right to vote for the first time in the United States.
“We want to advocate for women’s opportunities in society and in government and in leadership generally,” Healey said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.