Headshots of the 13 women of the Nebraska Legislature
Photos courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Information Office.

March 19 celebrates women in public office, and the 13 women elected to the Nebraska Legislature reflected on the chamber’s environment for women and the challenges that must still be overcome.

Women in Public Office Day began in 2017 and stems from the National Foundation for Women Legislators (NFWL), which State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue is part of. Blood was elected in 2016 and has introduced a resolution every year to honor the day with the lone exception of March 2020 in light of the coronavirus.

“What I want to make sure that we do is that we let young women know, young professionals know or older women like me know that it’s never too late to step up to the plate; it’s never too early to step up to the plate,” Blood said. “You can make a difference.”

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln has been a senator since 2015. Six joined in 2017, four in 2019 and two in 2021. Three women are up for re-election in November; Pansing Brooks is term limited. Eight of the women are registered Democrats, five are registered Republicans, though the body is officially nonpartisan.

The remaining 36 seats are occupied by men, the majority of whom are white.

A voice to help each other

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who acknowledged her older age compared to some senators, said the environment is much better than it would have been 20 years ago and not comparable to what it was even 30 years ago.

“The fact that we’re even here is a huge shift in my lifetime,” Linehan said.

She’s never wanted all men or all women at once, because all perspectives are valuable.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston said the environment is extremely strong and filled with a handful of talented and passionate women. Her job becomes a paycheck of the heart, she said, when things get done in a way that works well for everybody.

Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said the body is more accepting now than ever.

“I think no matter what environment women are in, it’s important to understand that you have to overachieve,” she said. “And that’s kind of a reality of being a woman. I don’t think of myself as a minority, but in that sense, you just have to work a little harder; you have to prove yourself.”

Pansing Brooks said she’s had wonderful experiences in the Legislature but emphasized her positives don’t take away from what others may face.

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont highlighted her service as a way for women to have a voice.

“Whether or not, to me, the environment is good or not so good, I have to look at it as an opportunity to use my voice as a woman and to be a role model for other women to use theirs,” Walz said.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said it feels like she’s been taken seriously in her time as a senator and that the women in the Legislature, even if on opposite ends of the spectrum, are incredible listeners. Blood, Walz and Pansing Brooks each echoed this. 

Geist said it’s important women support one another, including across party lines, which happens frequently.

“What one might encounter another might not, and we help each other,” Geist said.

‘The next set of leaders’

Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, the third-youngest state senator ever and youngest woman senator in Nebraska’s history, gave credit to trailblazers like former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr and current U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer for the progress today.

Orr, the first female Republican governor nationwide from 1987 to 1991, faced former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis in 1986: the first governor’s race in the United States between two women. Fischer served in the Legislature from 2005 to 2013 and was elected to Congress in 2012, the first woman from Nebraska elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate.

The legacy of those feats continue, and more women are getting involved, which is exciting and encouraging, Slama said.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington said she remembers the race between Orr and Boosalis, and remembers meeting Orr as governor. This, DeBoer said, is probably where she got the idea to run later in life.

“That kind of representation I think is really important for encouraging the next set of leaders,” DeBoer said.

A complicated environment

Many of the women legislators say the environment is more complicated than this and is always capable of change.

DeBoer noted there are more current senators named Tom, John, Mike and Steve than women. Walz and Linehan are also the sole women chairs of standing committees in the body — Education and Revenue respectively.

A few standing committees — Agriculture, General Affairs and Natural Resources — have no female members.

There has also never been a woman speaker of the Legislature, though Pansing Brooks, Slama and Walz each expressed hope there will soon be one.

Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue pointed to a meeting she had the morning of March 15. Of the 20 people there, only two were women. 

Sanders said there is also a personal barrier of intimidation in being in a room of primarily men, particularly when she’s shorter than most.

“But once you get to know them and you’re all on that same page of working together for the ultimate goal, it’s rewarding,” Sanders said.

According to Blood, women statistically aren’t asked to run for office or must be asked multiple times before they jump into a race.

“It’s unfortunate because women just simply aren’t asked to run for office, and to be really frank, I was never asked to run for office anytime I ran,” Blood said. “I think that everybody has to do it in their own time and their own window.”

Albrecht agreed on the timing, noting people must be committed because the work isn’t just 90- or 60-day sessions but year round. Family obligations must also be considered.

Data shows it may be easier for men to shift their work-life balance than women, Blood said, making a run for office potentially easier. And while nearly 51% of the United States is female, she said only one-third of all public offices are held by women.

‘Be the bigger person’

Another obstacle is how partisan the nonpartisan body sometimes is, according to Blood. There are no longer good or bad bills but issues people are either for or against.

“Why do we have to announce labels when we stand up?” Blood said. “I’m a proud Nebraskan.”

Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, who joined the body with Sanders in 2021, said the environment is tough. As a young woman it’s hard to get things done, and being a registered Democrat, the minority party in the nonpartisan Legislature, amplifies the difficulty, she said.

“People don’t take you seriously,” Day said. “You’re expected to compose yourself, I think, with a lot more guardrails than some of the men are expected to, and that makes it really hard. I think that’s one of the hardest things is always having to be the bigger person all the time because we’re not allowed to be as outspoken as the men in the body.”

Misogyny exists, and it can be pretty strong, Day said.

Wishart said she’s faced challenges serving as a younger woman in elected bodies of much older men. However, there have been some benefits, too, because of the extra work.

“I’m the most prepared person in the room, and there’s a power in that,” Wishart said. “So while it is frustrating sometimes to show up and be the one who’s done the work, ultimately I actually think that’s a benefit to myself and my goals and my career is that I’ve had that challenge in front of me and had to build those practices into my life.”

Changing the culture

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said there are many traditionalist elements, like many workplaces, which makes the environment hostile for women.

“I think a lot of that isn’t malicious,” Hunt said. “It’s not like people are trying to put women down or keep us back or anything. A lot of it is just from ignorance.”

Blood, Day and Hunt each called out the pay for senators: $12,000 a year for an elected four-year term. Hunt said this disproportionately impacts women who already make less than men on average.

Campaign costs can also be well over $100,000, Day said, which may be a barrier to many women.

Hunt said campaign funds can’t be used for childcare costs per Nebraska law, so this and the low salary make it hard for some women to run for office. She’s introduced a bill every year to allow payment for childcare with no success.

As the only single parent in the Legislature, Hunt said this complicates her ability to do her job. If Hunt must take time off work, it also shuts off her income stream.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha provided the harshest critique of the body, stating the environment is atrocious and terrible for women.

She pointed to floor debate on March 15 when multiple people got up on the floor, took things personally about their bills and were very forceful. Those senators were all men, according to Cavanaugh, and no senator nor anyone in the media commented on it.

“And when women are directly attacked and stand up for themselves, even in a measured tone, it’s unacceptable, or it’s a meltdown,” she said.

Before Cavanaugh came to the Legislature, there was also no mother’s room in the building, which changed but has been a continued fight.

Workplace harassment

Some of the challenges facing women were highlighted in February following the resignation of a state senator over allegations of sexual harassment.

DeBoer pointed to floor conversations Feb. 22, the day after the resignation, when multiple women — including Cavanaugh, Day, Slama, Pansing Brooks and DeBoer — took to the floor, demanded change and voiced concerns.

Of the three-person committee tasked to probe these workplace harassment allegations, Wishart is the only woman.

Both Slama and DeBoer have requested interim studies — LR305 and LR311 respectively — to examine personnel and workplace policies.

DeBoer said it’s been challenging because of the situation and other times in the Legislature, but she’s been encouraged as many of her colleagues seem receptive to listening.

“I have some hope that maybe we’ll make some strides,” DeBoer said.

The necessity of women legislators

Hunt said the fact people are still asking why it’s important for women to be in the Legislature is evidence of the importance because it doesn’t touch on the importance of women from historically marginalized communities. She and Day both highlighted the need for diversity of women.

“I think we need to be careful about patting ourselves on the back about how far we’ve come or something like that when there are still so many women in Nebraska who see the Nebraska Legislature as a place that would be hostile to them,” Hunt said.

Women need to be involved because they face different daily issues, according to Sanders. It’s equally important anyone steps up, she said, because each brings a different lens on the world and comes from different backgrounds.

“When I watch candidates step up, I give them so much credit just to enter the arena,” she said. Cavanaugh said more women are needed because with more women, there can be a greater impact on a history of male influence in the body.

“This isn’t a new thing, it’s just that you’re now in a position where everyone is supposed to be equal,” Cavanaugh said. “Everyone has one vote. Everyone is supposed to be at the same level. But there are men in the Legislature that want to impose a false hierarchy on the women, and so you have to push back against that, and you need women here to do that.”

Messages to women considering public office

In honor of Celebrating Women in Public Office Day on March 19, 2022, the Nebraska News Service asked each woman legislator what they would say to women considering a run for public office. These are their responses:

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.