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This Pa. state senator will be the first to give birth in office. She’s part of a wave of women who have upped representation in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania’s legislature now ranks 29th in the nation in terms of female representation, the highest ever for the state.

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti outside her office in the Capitol on Jan. 17. She is expecting her first child in March, becoming the state’s first sitting senator to give birth while in office.
State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti outside her office in the Capitol on Jan. 17. She is expecting her first child in March, becoming the state’s first sitting senator to give birth while in office.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti is expecting her first child in March.

So, too, it turns out, is the Pennsylvania state Senate.

Cappelletti will be the state’s first sitting senator to give birth while in office, and that’s prompted some logistical questions. What does maternal leave for a sitting senator look like? What resources should the Capitol nurse have on hand for her?

“My [colleagues] have been wonderful, but the first response is ‘Oh, we’ve never had to deal with that before,’” Cappelletti said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, this is where we’re at now.’”

Cappelletti, elected in 2020 to represent parts of Delaware and Montgomery Counties, is part of a growing group of women in the legislature, which this year reached a high-water mark for female representation.

This session, 79 women are serving in the General Assembly, or about 31%, the most in state history and double the number of women serving in 2010.

Pennsylvania’s legislature now ranks 29th in the nation in terms of female representation, the highest ever for the state, according to analysts at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Pennsylvania has ranked in the bottom 12 states through 2018, a Democratic wave year that brought the single largest year-over-year increase in women in the state legislature since at least 1975, according to Rutgers.

Still, the statehouse is far from gender parity, and obstacles to women entering politics and rising to leadership positions remain.

“I don’t know what the magic number is,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the center, “but I think it is a value added to the legislature, and it’s a value added to the process, and it’s a value added to the citizens of the state to have women’s voices heard and represented in the room.”

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The latest legislative session started with a glass ceiling broken in the Senate — Republican Kim Ward became the first woman elected Senate president pro tempore. Democrats had plans to elect State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) the first female and second Black state House speaker until a chaotic session in Harrisburg ended with the chamber elevating State Rep. Mark Rozzi to the position.

“It’s a little bit like one step forward, one step back,” said Dana Brown, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. But Brown noted McClinton will still lead her party, even if she’s not leading the chamber.

“I think it’s so important for the people of the commonwealth to see that women aren’t just running and winning, they’re leading,” Brown said. “And to me, it just opens up other doors and other opportunities for women, whether local or state government.”

The gender split by party

Women are evenly split between the two parties in the state Senate, with eight from each. In the state House, where Republicans currently hold a narrow majority, Democratic women outnumber Republican women, 36-28. Overall, though, Democrats have a better record electing women to statehouses nationwide — about two-thirds of the women serving in state legislatures are Democrats.

Walsh said the GOP has historically lagged the Democratic Party in representation partly because the Republican Party traditionally rejected identity politics, making efforts to elevate women more complicated.

“It’s a fallacy to think it’s a level playing field and that you don’t need to do anything out of the ordinary to recruit and support women and people of color,” Walsh said.

But that, too, could be changing. Nationally, Republicans have increasingly emphasized elevating women into leadership roles, Walsh said, and women were responsible for flipping the majority of seats across the country from blue to red in 2020.

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In Pennsylvania, women have moved into prominent leadership roles across state government in recent years. Judge Debra Todd became the first female chief justice for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after Chief Justice Max Baer’s death in October. Republican Stacey Garrity was elected treasurer in 2020.

Asked about her history-making moment in the Senate, Ward told The Inquirer last month that she became Senate president pro tempore “because I worked hard, not because I’m a woman. But I do hope it shows young women, including my grandchildren ... there’s nothing beyond their reach.”

Ward stressed that legislatures are best when they represent a diverse variety of experiences. She is a breast cancer survivor who wrote legislation to make it easier for women to get early-detection screening procedures. “One in eight women get breast cancer. ... That’s a lot of women,” Ward said. “So that is like my fight because it affects so many families, women, people around Pennsylvania.”

Barriers to entry

In a December interview, McClinton reflected on her time in Harrisburg, which began in 2013 when she was an aide to State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia). At the time, the 50-seat Senate had only eight female senators.

The makeup of the legislature and its staff has since changed, she said, but barriers still exist for women, particularly in fund-raising. McClinton said organizations that aim to boost women seeking political office have closed some of the gaps.

”They do a great job of supporting women who, like myself, are professional, are accomplished, but just don’t have the donor book,” she said. She said young men in politics who have been mentored by other men may get connected to donors who can write hefty checks. For McClinton, she said, “it wasn’t that easy.”

Other women in the legislature said seeking office can be especially challenging for caregivers, whether of aging parents or younger children. Ward ran for Senate when she was 52 and her children were grown.

“I think it does make women hesitant,” she said. “It’s hard to be away from your house, and you have to be away from your house a lot.” But she also said she sees that changing as she looks at colleagues with children at home.

Rep. Tina Pickett (R., Bradford/Wyoming) is one of the longest-serving women in Harrisburg, having been in the state House for more than two decades. When she first took office in 2001, she was one of just 27 women in the 203-member House.

She’s since ascended to leadership, including chairing the House Gaming Oversight Committee and throwing her hat in the ring this year to be considered for the speakership, though she and most of the caucus ultimately backed Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar (R., Somerset).

Pickett, who was a small-business owner prior to becoming an elected official, said fund-raising has long been a key challenge for women — a tradition she said is slowly changing.

“You look back 25 years and a lot of the folks that are in a position to be able to [donate], major leaders of companies and things like that, they were largely men,” she said. “But women executives are much more prevalent today, so that’s a big change.”

Studies have shown women often have a harder time fund-raising and have to work harder to overcome gendered biases about whether they can raise money or win elections.

“It’s really just this overall question of viability,” Brown said. “Parties talk about viability, donors talk about viability — that’s a question that always hangs over women candidates’ heads a little different than it does male candidates.”

While women are just as likely to be elected as men, fewer jump in the ring to run in the first place. Cappelletti said when she was first approached to run, she declined. She later talked with a mentor from law school who told her women have to be asked several more times than men do before they agree to run for office.

“We are engendered to believe, ‘It’s not my time. I don’t know if I’ve earned this,’” Cappelletti said.

Since entering office, she’s become the minority chair on the busy State Government Committee. During a heated debate about abortion rights last year, she publicly talked about having two miscarriages and advocated for the importance of abortion access, which can affect women who have miscarried. She’s also working on legislation to mandate three sick days following miscarriages.

“It’s like Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. ... ‘When will there be enough? When we’re all women?’” Cappelletti said. “I just think it’s so terribly important that we have a variety of views.”

Cappelletti is looking ahead to a busy session — and to March, when her daughter is due. There’s been discussion of making arrangements for her to tune in to meetings virtually if need be.

“Both sides of the aisle have been very accommodating with me working to start a family and understanding that this is new,” she said. “We’re getting a younger generation in here and these are things we have to work through together.”

Staff writer Gillian McGoldrick contributed to this article.