TOPEKA (TNS) — The number of women in the Kansas Legislature fell in this year's election, even though women will now hold more legislative seats nationwide.
Kansas was above the national average in terms of the percentage of legislative seats held by women. Come January, the state will fall below the national average.
"We actually in the House, on the state level, went backwards as far as female representation," Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Olathe Democrat, said at a panel discussion on women in politics hosted by KCUR.
In 2018, Kansas had 48 female lawmakers, and women held 28.5 percent of all seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But once new lawmakers take office in January, that number will drop to 43. Women will hold 26 percent of seats.
The losses come even as Kansas elected its third female governor — Laura Kelly — and Sen. Vicki Schmidt takes over as insurance commissioner after years without a woman holding a statewide executive office.
Losing four female lawmakers is the difference between Kansas running ahead or behind of the national average when it comes to female representation in the Legislature. Nationally, states on average gained female lawmakers in November's election, but Kansas didn't.
In 2018, women held 25.4 percent of legislative seats nationwide; in 2019 the percentage will rise to 28.3 percent.
Kansas has had more women in the Legislature at various points in its past.
In 1999, women held 33.3 percent of legislative seats in Kansas, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, or CAWP, at Rutgers University. That appears to be the high watermark for the state.
Kansas used to be among the states with the most women serving in the Legislature, but in recent years its ranking has fallen.
In 1999 and 2000, Kansas ranked 5th among all states in terms of the percentage of legislative seats held by women. Between 1989 and 2006, the state's rank never fell below 13th.
Since then, Kansas has ranked in the teens or twenties and was as low as 29th in 2016. In 2018, it ranked 18th among states, according to the center.
Holscher said Kansas had "slid back."
"We have to keep going and we have to keep working on this," she said.
When women run for office, they win at the same rate as men in comparable races, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director at CAWP. The problem is that they don't run as often as men.
"Even now, which was a record breaking year for women candidates, particularly Democratic women, they still were only — it depends on what level you're talking about — a quarter of all candidates. So men are still running at higher rates," Sinzdak said.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, of Overland Park, told the women-in-politics panel that part of the reason more women don't get into politics stems from bench-building issues, such as women not leading committees or being placed into leadership roles. Clayton was a Republican at the time of her remarks but recently became a Democrat.
"If you're not building up your bench and lifting up your women, then you're not going to have women leading in higher politics," Clayton said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, is the first woman to serve as the Kansas Senate president. When she entered the Legislature in 1991, there were 44 female lawmakers, according to CAWP.
There will be fewer in 2019, if current figures hold.
"When I began my political career there were few women in the Kansas Legislature, so I fully understand the importance of female representation," Wagle said in a statement. "Women bring valuable experience to the table and my hope is to see a rise in women running for office next cycle, especially for conservative women who are often ignored and forgotten."
Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation, said the organization saw more women become politically involved in helping campaigns during the last election cycle. The results of the 2016 election served as a "springboard," she said.
President Donald Trump's election in 2016 — coming after revelations that he bragged on tape about grabbing women's genitals in extremely crude terms — spurred the nationwide Women's March and other demonstrations.
"The next day, women said 'wow, we need to step up and there's more that we can do,'" Doyle said.
But women continue to not feel confident enough to run for office, Doyle said.
Running a campaign is extremely expensive and can tax a candidate's family, Doyle said. And campaigns can sometimes become personal, and women have expressed concerns about protecting their family from exposure, she said.
"Just what happens with the negative campaigning — if we could change that and have a little bit more civil discourse, it would be interesting to see," Doyle asked, "Would that help getting more women wanting to run for office?"
Doyle said the Women's Foundation wants to offer training to more women that includes confidence-building in an effort to encourage civic engagement and candidacies among women, as well as pushing for more women to be appointed to boards and commissions.