Women bring new perspective in historic leadership of Colorado House
(Colorado Newsline) As Colorado Democrats prepare to enter the upcoming legislative session with wider margins in the majority in both chambers, House Democrats will be led by a historically diverse leadership team with three women at the helm.
The House Democratic caucus selected Rep. Julie McCluskie of Dillon as speaker, Rep. Monica Duran of Wheat Ridge as its majority leader and Rep. Jennifer Bacon as its assistant majority leader during November leadership elections.
It is the first time in Colorado that those top three leadership positions, which have wide ranging policy and agenda-setting power, will be held by women.
McCluskie was first elected to the House in 2018 and has served on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, most recently as chairwoman. Duran was also first elected to the House in 2018. Bacon was elected in 2020 and previously served on the Denver Board of Education.
“It’s historic and it is meaningful. I think in my time serving with these other two women leaders, it is an example of how our colleagues have viewed women in leadership positions and have a true commitment to working families, to children, and to making sure that the voices of women are not only heard, but celebrated,” McCluskie told Colorado Newsline.
“There is something uniquely Colorado and uniquely Western about the three of us having these roles,” she said.
Colorado was the first state to give women the right to vote through a popular election in 1893, and it saw the first three women elected to serve in the Legislature the following year.
Now, Colorado joins a handful of other states that have high levels of women in state legislative leadership. The Iowa House Democratic leadership team is all women. In Nevada, three of the five Senate Democratic leaders are women. And in the Vermont House, the speaker, majority leader and assistant majority leader are women.
“We had to overcome the perception that women weren’t as good as leaders. This is exciting because there’s just more recognition and opportunities that women can serve capably in any of these positions,” said former speaker of the Colorado House and current Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator KC Becker.
The milestone comes as Colorado’s Legislature is poised to have more women than men in the upcoming session for the first time, and a House Democratic leadership team that is made up of six women out of seven members, including multiple women of color and a transgender woman.
“The three of us are a manifestation of very intentional and very hard work,” Bacon said. “Many women in the political space have put it out there that it is really important that we’re in the room. It’s really important that we have these seats.”
She said the leadership team makeup is a testament to their colleagues, because of their belief in the power of women as leaders.
“There’s something to be said about the reality of people trusting women to make difficult decisions because of the experiences we’ve had, whether they are individual or collective. It is unfortunate that we’ve had a common experience in this country to feel othered, but we understand what that is and it has become part of our identity to the extent that we want to defy it,” Bacon said.
That collective identity matters and influences how women lead, but the three women also have distinct personal experiences: Bacon is a Black woman, while Duran is a Latina and domestic abuse survivor.
“Whatever our life experience forms who we are today. For me, as a domestic abuse survivor and once-homeless single mother, all of those experiences, struggles and stigmas I went through as a young mom really formed the policy I champion now that I’m here, for the voices of the most vulnerable,” Duran said.
“I’ve gotten pushback in being a Black woman,” Bacon said. “People have even said to me that I am in leadership because I’m Black — not from our colleagues, but just from the world. I think there is a time when we’re going to turn that on its head, saying ‘Yes, I did get this role because I’m a Black woman. Let me tell you what that’s like. Let me tell you the skill set I had to build and the languages I had to learn to speak. That came from my womanhood just as much as my skin color. To me, that’s an asset.”
A distinct leadership style
Currently, women hold 31% of state legislature seats across the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. When those women ascend to leadership positions, it signals progress towards equality.
“We continually talk about the importance of not only having a majority, but having women in leadership. That really signals the type of parity and the type of influence that those of us researching this are looking for. It’s not simply in numbers — it’s in positions of power that help to set the agenda and set the climate in these spaces,” said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at CAWP.
Dittmar said that research indicates that as leaders, women tend to be more collaborative and include perspectives historically left out of white male dominated institutions like state legislatures.
“Women are of a class that has been marginalized from these spaces of power, so they are at least aware of that and attentive to it in the way they lead. That’s true across party lines, but especially with Democratic women who are representing constituencies that are especially diverse,” she said.
McCluskie said that as legislators, the three leaders have “exemplified that commitment to bringing all voices to the table,” even dissenting ones, to craft inclusive policy.
“It’s not to say that male leaders in the house haven’t done that, but I would say our approach is consistent with that idea of being inclusive,” she said.
Those leadership differences can also extend to more concrete changes, Dittmar said, to things like dress code, designation of breast feeding areas, scheduling to allow for child care concerns or using remote work to increase flexibility for primary caregivers.
Having women in charge of much of the agenda-setting in the Legislature could also have direct impacts on the type of policies that get prioritized. Last year, Colorado legislators passed laws that eliminated the sales tax on diapers and menstrual products, as well as the hallmark Reproductive Health Equity Act that codified the right to abortion in the state.
Bacon said that this upcoming session, there may be a lot of conversations about how family and the criminal justice system interact.
“It’s particularly about the way we’re having the conversation, from a family lens, and talking about (criminal justice) along the path to a healthy community,” she said.
Duran agreed that considering legislation through the impact it would have on families is crucial, highlighting work she did to include more funding to the Eviction Legal Defense Fund through last year’s budget bill.
‘Groundswell’ support for women political leaders
McCluskie, Duran and Bacon all agreed that they have experienced sexism on some level while serving in the Legislature — whether that looked like being called “sweetheart” or being told they were too emotional on a topic.
After former former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock was expelled from the Legislature in 2018 after sexual harassment allegations, a survey from an independent consultant found that nearly half of 500 people surveyed had witnessed sexist behavior in the Capitol — nearly none going on to file a complaint — and one-third said they experienced sexual harassment firsthand. A bipartisan sexual harassment interim committee began work later that year.
Duran said she feels like she has been able to have an open conversation with her colleagues in potentially sexist situations, acknowledging that oftentimes sexism manifests in unintentional habits and patterns of thought.
“It’s a learning experience for myself as well as the other person, since you assume they know what they are doing. They often don’t know and can be appreciative that I highlight it and bring it on their radar,” she said.
McCluskie said it is up to them to foster an environment that doesn’t allow for sexism or misogyny, including ongoing training and other practices to shift the environment.
In order to ensure the continuation of women in elected positions and leadership roles, the three said is is important to “build the bench” and continuing to lift women up — hopefully, they said, so that one day soon Denver has a woman mayor, Colorado has a woman governor and U.S. Senator, and the country has its first woman president.
“There seems to be a groundswell in feeling and ability to trust women,” Bacon said. “For the last 10 years that we’ve had, the bravery that we’ve had to show the world, whether it was #MeToo or getting equal pay — this is the time to reap those benefits.”
The 2023 legislative session convenes on Jan. 9.