Female-oriented issues may be huge topics in the male-dominated 2022 legislative session

By: - January 11, 2022 7:00 am

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo speaking after she was nominated to serve as the next Senate President starting at the 2022 legislative session on Oct. 19, 2021. Current Senate President Wilton Simpson and Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield sit beside her. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Tuesday marks the official start of the 2022 legislative session, where members of the Florida House and Senate will congregate in their chambers. But for the most part, those members are guys.

In Florida’s House of Representatives, 78 men will join only 40 women to kick off the new session. On the other side of the Capitol building, 24 male senators will join 15 female senators.

Combined, only about 35 percent of women are represented in the Florida Legislature, even though women make up 51 percent of Floridians, according to 2021 census data.

Yet many topics that largely affect the women of Florida, such as access to abortion and menstrual products, could be major issues in the 2022 legislative session. That means policies that might impact half of the population in Florida will be decided based on a legislative body comprised of about two-thirds men.

What will this mean for Florida women and others affected by these policies in the 2022 session? It’s not yet clear.

Women in the Legislature

The number of female lawmakers has grown marginally over a couple years.

The Phoenix previously reported that in 2020, there were 12 female senators compared to 28 male peers. And in the House, the Phoenix counted 36 women and 84 men serving in the 2020 regular session. Women made up about 30 percent of the lawmakers serving on either chambers two years ago.

But since then, more women have been elected by their constituents. For the 2022 legislative session, the House is about 34 percent women and the Senate is about 38 percent women, according to Phoenix analysis.

Note: Two male representatives and one male senator earlier announced their resignations from the Legislature and were not calculated in this analysis.

“I think it’s great. I think we’re making a lot of progress,” said Rep. Traci Koster, a Republican who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. “I think it’s great to have the voice of women and the voice of men. We need both to pass the best policies. Women bring a different perspective and a different way of doing things to the table.”

She continued: “I am not going to try to guess why it’s one-third, two-third, or whether or not that matters. I think we have the right people for the right jobs, right now.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, said that having fewer women in the legislature affects what bills get filed.

“It means that there’s going to be a disparity in the types of policies that are filed that focus on issues which directly impacts women and families,” Eskamani said.

“Obviously, there’s so much more we could do to make this process reach gender parity and I do think that is a larger systematic conversation,” she continued.

“At the end of the day, politics have been a male-dominated field for a very long time. I think that when women run, women win. But also, there’s so many barriers to create an environment where women can run for office.”

But not everyone thinks so.

“Quite frankly, I think we face a lot of the same issues that men face right now,” said Rep. Koster.

She continued: “I think our focus needs to be more global on what’s going on right now and what we can do to get our economy back up and running and figuring out ways to get people back to work. I know we’re still faced with workforce issues across the map.”

Though women are a minority in the Florida Legislature, several hold significant leadership positions  in the Senate, where Senate President Wilton Simpson has brought in top female leadership.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield is the Senate majority leader, overseeing the interests of Republican senators. Mayfield represents Indian River County and part of Brevard County on the Atlantic Coast of Florida.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lauren Book serves as the Senate minority leader, overseeing Senate Democrats. She represents part of Broward County.

And later this year, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo will be the Senate’s new president, becoming only the third women to fill this powerful role. She represents Collier and Hendry counties, as well as part of Lee County, in Southwest Florida, and currently chairs the powerful Rules Committee in the Senate.

State Sen. Kelli Stargel, a powerhouse from Central Florida, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the state budget efforts in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, women are not getting similar top leadership roles in the Florida House .

There’s never been a female Speaker of the House in Florida — Chris Sprowls is the current Speaker–  and the incoming-Speaker, Paul Renner, also is male.

Issues largely impacting women

A few months back, a male Republican lawmaker filed HB 167, which severely restricts abortion access and relies on citizens to sue people for getting or attempting an abortion or aiding someone to get an abortion.

The House bill was extremely similar to the controversial bill filed in Texas called SB 8.

However, the Texas-style abortion bill has not made much traction in the Florida Legislature and even some GOP lawmakers have expressed distaste for parts of the Texas-style abortion bill. Sen. Passidomo, who has said she favors restricting abortion access, also has equated parts of the legislation to Nazi Germany, where people turned in their neighbors to authorities.

But reproductive rights advocates are weary that a new abortion legislation could emerge.

“My inkling is we’re going to see a 15-week abortion ban be the bill that moves – not 167,” Rep. Eskamani told the Phoenix.

“I suspect within the next 24 hours, a bill will be filed and that it would look more like Mississippi than Texas.”

Eskamani is referring to a law in Mississippi which bans abortions after 15-weeks of pregnancy.

“But based on comments made by incoming-Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, and incoming-Speaker Paul Renner, it definitely feels like the vibe coming from leadership is to go towards a 15-week ban,” she said.

Eskamani noted that in past legislative sessions, some Republican women have voted against restricting abortion access, bucking party expectations. But she says that it’s not clear if current Republicans and Democrats will come together on this issue, one way or another.

“It’s hard to predict that right now. We have not seen Republicans vote against party lines on abortions so far. … We just haven’t seen Republican women in this Legislative chamber be brave enough to make that statement or make that decision.”

But Debbie Deland, president of the women advocacy group Florida NOW, says she doesn’t see how opposing sides could compromise on abortion.

“I don’t see us coming together, because we oppose any ban. We really believe abortion has nothing to do with government and is a choice of the woman involved and is a part of reproductive health care,” Deland told the Phoenix.

“We shouldn’t be forcing pregnancy. It’s just ridiculous,” Deland said. She noted that people with higher incomes may have more opportunities to seek an abortion if any new restrictions are added to Florida law.

“They’ll (Florida Legislature) pass a ban, and it will apply to everybody,” Deland said, “the middle-class and the wealthy will be able to go out of state to get their abortion, but low-income and poor will not be able to do it.”

Another area that tends to impact women is health care.

“Health care, in general, impacts all people. But it seems as though women bear the brunt of making the family work — working outside of the home and then coming home and being ‘the mom,’ or ‘the wife’ or ‘the partner’ that thinks of all of the other things to do,” said Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“Whenever there’s a lack of health care support, basically, that burden falls often more heavily on women,” Scoon told the Phoenix.

Rep. Eskamani has filed a bill to eliminate the sales tax on diapers, which she called a “a major burden for many of Florida’s families, especially working families and low-income families.” She’s also filed a bill to require that Florida public schools provide menstrual products to students at no cost.

There could be bipartisan interest in this area too. In the 2021 legislative session, House Speaker Chris Sprowls pushed for a specific expansion for Medicaid, for low-income new mothers and babies.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.