When state Rep. Kelly Fajardo joined the New Mexico Legislature in early 2013, she discovered something surprising: There was no women’s bathroom in the lawmakers’ lounge near the House chamber.
“There was a men’s bathroom, which means when the Capitol was built [in the 1960s], gender was a secondary thought,” said Fajardo, a Los Lunas Republican.
“We just got a women’s bathroom about four years ago,” she said. “That gives you some idea of where people’s mindset was at.”
Eight years after she took office — and more than a century after women earned the right to vote in the U.S. — Fajardo will witness a momentous change in the state House of Representatives: Women will hold a majority of seats, 37-33, come January.
Women in both major political parties are celebrating the shift.
“That feels great,” Fajardo said. “I’m bragging about it. I think it’s exciting.”
State Rep. Melanie Stansbury, an Albuquerque Democrat, agrees. “We have this tremendous group of intelligent women legislators bringing all their power to the state,” she said. “It’s fantastic.”
Leading men in the House are also lauding the change. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the female majority in the chamber is “a long overdue and thrilling development in New Mexico government.”
House leaders have been working to draw more women for years, he said, and “it will be to the benefit of everyone we serve in the state to have more women.”
New Mexico now ranks fourth in the nation for the ratio of women to men who will hold House chamber seats in January, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Because some state House races are still being counted, New Mexico could drop to fifth, sixth or seventh place — still an impressive ranking, Sinzdak said.
“The New Mexico data mirrors everything we are seeing overall around the country,” she said. “In general, there are record numbers of women running at every level, from the state legislature up to Congress.”
The No. 1 question Sinzdak fields on the topic: “Why?”
Data shows that for at least the past two decades, women have been increasing their political profile, she said. Issues such as public education and health care have helped drive that energy. More recently, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have motivated women to run.
In 2018, Sinzdak’s agency saw a record number of women running, “almost all on the Democratic side, a blue wave election campaign season driven from the left,” she said. “A lot of that had to do with the election of President [Donald] Trump, his administration and policies.”
In 2016, when Trump was elected, 3,418 women ran for state legislative seats around the nation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. This year, the number increased slightly to 3,444. Of those women, 2,780 ran for state House seats.
When they win, Sinzdak said, it creates a role model effect. “So, when other women see women in these positions, it makes them more likely to say, ‘I can do that.’ ”
For the past 22 years, the Center for American Women and Politics has conducted a nonpartisan Ready to Run training program to prepare women to pursue office.
“It’s not about getting more Republican or Democratic women to run,” Sinzdak said. “It’s about demystifying the process of running.”
Ready to Run is not the only such program. Emerge, a national organization focused on preparing progressive Democratic women for political campaigns, has trained some 4,000 women since its founding in 2002.
Emerge New Mexico has been one of its most successful branches. The group prepared 75 women to run for a range of offices in this year’s general election — and 61 of them won, said Alexandria Bazan, interim executive director.
Emerge New Mexico has been “building the bench for Democratic women for 14 years,” said Marianna Anaya, president of the organization’s board.
“Our Emerge women have spent years dedicating their lives to their communities,” she added. “These women have been educators, nurses, organizers, heads of businesses — so they have a real community connectedness. That’s why it is so empowering to see these women be born of the community and rise to the position of legislators.”
One reason Democratic women might be making more political inroads than Republicans is that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans across the U.S. A recent Pew Research Center report said 33 percent of Americans are registered as Democrats while 29 percent are Republicans.
More than a third are registered as independents.
Fajardo thinks that’s the group to target for recruiting. It’s also a reason she co-founded the nonprofit Rise New Mexico three years ago. Like Emerge, it trains and supports women who hope to run for office, but it draws those who embrace more conservative views. Fajardo hopes to attract a growing number of women to the effort who identify as independent.
“You have a lot of people on the far right screaming and yelling, and you have a lot of people on the far left screaming and yelling, but I think most women identify as middle-center,” Fajardo said. “A lot of women say these far right or left platforms don’t speak for them.”
Anaya said women often get pigeonholed as politicians who support only women’s issues. “But what women’s issues are, are all issues,” she said. “You’ll find an array of issues women run on that impact both them and their families and friends, male and female,” such as child care and education.
Emerge participant Kristina Ortez, a mother of two girls who won the House District 42 seat this year, said she thinks voters will see “more focus on issues that support working families, single parents. I don’t know what that will look like yet. And reproductive health issues, the decriminalization of abortion in New Mexico — those are issues we are likely to see … brought to light.”
Egolf said it would be difficult, however, to predict what effect the rising number of women in the House will have on legislation, given “some of the most conservative members of the House are women and some of the most progressive members of the House are women.”
Many challenges remain for women in politics, Fajardo and others said, such as questions from constituents about how a mother with young children can care for her family while running for office.
“A man running for office does not face that,” Fajardo said.
Ortez, a Taos Democrat, said it’s “kind of a BS question” — one she heard a lot as she campaigned.
She said that each time she answered the question, she “stepped into my own power. I would say, ‘I’m not gonna do everything at once. I’m going to prioritize. As an elected leader, it’s going to be important for me to prioritize.’ ”
Ortez plans to push for clean energy initiatives and efforts to fund more early childhood education programs.
Ortez said she decided to run for a House seat after attending an all-women discussion in September 2019 on how to encourage more women to run for office.
She asked the group: “Who will represent us?”
She had never thought of herself as a potential candidate, she said, until some of the other women urged her to answer her own question by running.
Sinzdak and Anaya said women often have to be asked repeatedly to run for office, whereas male potential candidates tend to jump at the first offer.
“When we ask women to apply for the Engage program, some may not believe they are qualified to run for office,” Anaya said.
Stansbury recalled her first day wandering the halls of the Capitol as she waited to be sworn in as a legislator in January 2019. She said an elderly man stopped and said, “ ’Jita, are you lost? Are you somebody’s secretary?”
“Every woman, especially a young woman, could tell a story like that,” she said. “We still have to fight those stereotypes of where women belong.”
But Stansbury believes women are on the cusp of a new era in which it will no longer be a novelty to talk about women running for office or serving in leadership roles.
Fajardo also feels that day is coming.
Women are experts in building a budget, dealing with education and health care issues, and perfecting the art of compromise — all skills that are necessary when it comes to serving in the Legislature, she said.
And, she added, women will go to the mat for a piece of legislation they believe in.
“We are very good at collaborating,” Fajardo said. “We like to birth something, we like to see it finished, because it matters to us.
“We fight for it all the way — that’s in our nature, that’s who we are as women.”