SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — More than 40 years ago, Republican Rep. Sen. Jean Hunhoff was a page in the South Dakota Legislature when she saw a tampon hanging from the microphone of a female legislator.

“I was so appalled,” Hunhoff, of Yankton, said of the incident.

A tampon on a female legislator’s microphone has evolved to a discussion in this session about removing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products in the state, Hunhoff said.

Democratic Rep. Erin Healy of Sioux Falls was the legislator who introduced the bill that ultimately failed in a legislative committee.

Healy said, while the bill failed, the discussion about it was a success. It’s doubtful that any male legislator would have introduced such a bill, Healy said. And it’s an example of the perspective women can bring to the Legislature, she said. “I don’t know that a man would bring forward this kind of legislation,” Healy said.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first time a woman served in the South Dakota Legislature. Gladys Pyle of Huron began her term in 1923.

While the number of women serving in the Legislature has increased since 1923, not enough progress has been made, several legislators said.

“Obviously, we’ve made progress but I don’t think we’ve made enough,” Healy said.

An estimated 49% of the state’s population in 2022 was female, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Healy said the percentage of females in the state should be more accurately represented in the Legislature.

Hunhoff is now the longest-tenured woman serving in the Legislature. And she’s seen more women taking their rightful place in the Legislature since she joined the state House in 2000.

“When I was elected in 2000, there were very few women in the Legislature,” Hunhoff said.

Fifteen of the 105 legislators were women in 2000, for a percentage of 14%, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) associated with the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.

This year, there are 30 women in a Legislature of 105 members. Twenty-two House members are women. Women make up about 28% of the legislators in the South Dakota Legislature.

“Of the Republicans about 20 of 63 (House members) are women. That’s not even a third of the caucus,” Republican Rep. Jess Olson of Rapid City said. “It’s barely above that when you add in a few Democrats for the full body of the House.

Eight of the 35 Senators are women.

Democratic Sen. Liz Larson, of Sioux Falls, is new to the Legislature this year.

“While I don’t feel out of place per se as a woman, sometimes when I take a step back and observe, I recognize that I’m maybe one of two women in the room, I mean there’s not a lot of women in the Senate,” Larson said. “But I’ve never felt overtly discriminated against.”

Society has made great strides toward gender equality and while it’s not necessarily her priority issue, she does notice the inequity issues.

The percentage of women in the Legislature has not changed much in the past several years, Larson said.

CAWP data goes back to 1975 when 10.6% of the lawmakers were women. The percentage increased to nearly 25% (24.8%) by 1991 but then decreased to 20% and below to 14% in 2000.

Why don’t more women run?

Larson said time constraints may prevent a woman from running for office.

A woman, particularly one with children and who works outside the home, can find it more difficult to campaign than a man, Larson said.

In some cases, women don’t run for political office because of the feedback, even backlash or scrutiny, they may get from the public and from their own friends or family.

“It’s particularly important for women to surround themselves with others who will lift them up,” Olson said.

“Although women may say that support is important, women can often be the people who can make it difficult for other women to run,” Olson said.

Olson said she has heard statements such as ‘how can she run for office or take on additional duties because she is so busy and it takes time away from her family’ from friends, family and strangers who are women.

“It’s women who are saying that to me,” Olson said. “That’s not uplifting.”

Healy said male candidates don’t always get asked the same questions or get asked a question in the same way as female candidates do.

Healy said she felt she constantly had to prove she was experienced enough to run for office. She also got asked about family obligations.

“Men don’t face those same issues. They simply don’t,” Olson said.

Hunhoff made it a personal mission to encourage other women to run for office, especially women in the health care field.

She was concerned that issues that impacted women’s health and health care were not being addressed in the Legislature.

“One of the things that irritated me most is on women’s issues and the guys (thought) they had all the answers,” Hunhoff said. “Especially in health care.”

Hunhoff said women are often accustomed to multi-tasking whether it’s roles on the job or in the home. That is beneficial in the Legislature but it also brings a broader perspective on certain issues.

All four lawmakers said they had mentors and encouraging support. Olson said beyond having support and interest, a woman needs to be asking about opportunities to run for office.

In a 1979 interview contained in the archives of the South Dakota Historical Society, Pyle said an influential man in the Republican party at first resisted her decision to run for office. Later, he became a supporter.

“As I was out trying to encourage women to participate… I began to think, well ‘do these lectures apply to me or just my audience?’ That’s when I decided to run for Legislature,” Pyle said in a 1979 interview.

Women in leadership

Hunhoff is the co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations committee. Healy is the assistant minority leader in the House.

Yet, the leadership in the House and Senate does not reflect the number of women serving.

“I would love to see more women in leadership roles,” Larson said. It’s not only women that need to be reflected in leadership or in the Legislature, it’s South Dakota as a whole, Larson said.

“Leadership in the Legislature comes down to choice,” Olson said.

“If you look at the choices for leadership, and those are all choices, we have fewer women in leadership positions…,” Olson said.

“We change it by having these discussions,” Healy said.

Making an impact in Pierre

Larson has a professional background of working in multiple countries on economic development and similar issues. She said gender norms play a role in how people react to each other across the world and while she feels at home in her native South Dakota, as a woman, she has to know how to navigate the gender norms here and in the Legislature.

During her time in the Legislature, Hunhoff has had to forge partnerships and working relationships within both parties. She’s seen respect for her abilities grow during her time in Pierre.

As a woman and a Democrat, Healy said she may have more of an uphill battle in getting legislation passed. It is important to establish bi-partisan relationships and find common ground on issues.

Pyle said a 1979 interview contained in the archives of the South Dakota historical society that she introduced controversial bills that faced resistance from male lawmakers. One bill was to allow women to serve on juries. She believed a woman had the right to a trial by her peers.

The bill would have passed if she would have accepted an amendment to make it voluntary for women to serve on a jury, Pyle said. She would not accept the amendment. Women were not allowed to serve on a jury in the state until the late 1940s.

There are issues on which Olson has not voted in step with the majority of her Republican colleagues.

“I want to continue to be an example of it doesn’t have to be party over anything else,” Olson said.

She learned from one of her mentors, David Lust, a lawmaker who died in 2021, that she needs to question if proposed legislation is needed, is it good for South Dakota, if it will cause unintended consequences, if the issue can be solved without legislation and similar.

The Legislature, particularly the Republican caucus has experienced internal fighting, she said. Part of that stems from being the super-majority within the Legislature, Olson said.

There will be issues on which lawmakers will disagree but, “Let’s have the conversation, let’s be respectful and have meaningful dialogue. I wish we would focus more on common ground issues that move us forward and bring us together,” Olson said.

The impact of women in office is illustrated when lawmakers bring their children to the Capitol and into House or Senate chambers to be introduced, Hunhoff said. That’s a sign that women and even younger male lawmakers are finding some balance between being a parent and a lawmaker, Hunhoff said. The children may be staying in Pierre for a time while the parent is working in the Legislature.

But the Legislature can take more steps to acknowledge that it is a work place, legislators said.

Larson would like child care to qualify as an expense during a campaign for office. The campaign season is demanding and it may prevent women and younger residents from running for office.

Pyle, Larson noted, was unmarried and did not have children, and may not have faced the time constraints that women with children do today.

Republican Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller was suspended this session for her conduct with an employee of the Legislative Research Council (LRC). Frye-Mueller was later reinstated.

Olson said she heard a fellow legislator tell another that legislator in reference to the LRC incident that a lawmaker could not speak to LRC staff that way but could do so with a colleague.

“That sort of summed up that misguided notion…I realized that sometimes (lawmakers) don’t view (the Legislature) as a place of work,” Olson said. “We should view the Legislature as a place of work.”

Olson would like the Legislature to review how it schedules the session work days and work week and make it reflective of a work place model.

As more women and younger lawmakers enter the Legislature, the change in the work structure could change in the future, Olson said.

Healy would also like the scheduling in the Legislature to improve and is willing to work on that before the next session.

Gladys Pyle as a role model

“She really was a front runner,” Hunhoff said. “She was visionary and saw what South Dakota needed.” Pyle was instrumental in child labor laws and oversight of miscellaneous funds spent in the Legislature. She became the Secretary of State and served in Congress after serving in the Legislature.

Healy noted that Pyle was a Latin teacher. Healy’s mom taught Latin. Healy is impressed that Pyle fought for women to serve on jury duty. It took time because the state didn’t allow that until the late 1940s.