In being represented by both a female senator and a female House member, Surry County is defying the trend in the N.C. General Assembly — where at last report only 22 percent of those holding offices were women.
That’s despite females making up 51.3 percent of the state’s population, according to 2013 census figures.
But Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy and Sen. Shirley Randleman of Wilkes County — the 100-percent female delegation representing Surry in Raleigh — say the trend is shifting toward more women legislators.
The existing situation does not reflect any type of gender-related discrimination, they say. Instead, the two believe it is simply a carry-over of the traditional male-female roles, which North Carolina gradually is moving away from as more women have entered the workplace in general and occupied leadership roles.
“We tend to be the caregivers and nurturers at home,” Stevens said in commenting on a recent report on female legislative makeups around the country by the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I think that’s one of the key factors” for fewer women serving — making up less than a quarter of all state legislatures nationwide.
“Society as a whole makes it easier for men to leave the caregiving to women,” added Stevens, a Republican whose 90th House District includes Surry and Wilkes counties.
“A lot of women, they have their family obligations, they have other obligations,” agreed Sen. Randleman, a fellow GOP member whose 30th Senate District includes Surry, Stokes and Wilkes counties.
“Being in Raleigh and serving in the General Assembly, it takes a lot of time from your family obligations — a lot more than most (women) are willing to contribute.”
Functioning as a working mother demands a constant juggling act, but those issues are magnified with serving in Raleigh and being away from home when the Legislature is in session, Stevens mentioned.
“Some of the women have little children,” she said. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices to be here, and I think the sacrifices are greater sometimes for women than they are for men.”
That is not the case with Stevens, who has two daughters, ages 21 and 23, but who were of high school age when she first was elected to the General Assembly in 2008. Stevens said support and understanding from her husband and children kept the family going during that time, and the House member still maintains her primary occupation as an attorney.
“There’s a lady that I know who has children that are 14 and 16,” Stevens said of one fellow lawmaker.
“Sometimes she needs to be home with them,” the local legislator said, “and can drive home every night — she does live less than an hour away (from Raleigh).”
Randleman, meanwhile, is in her 60s and is retired from the Wilkes County clerk of court office, where she logged 34 years, 11 as clerk.
North Carolina ranks in the lower half of U.S. states in terms of women serving in legislative offices, based on the recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, which reflect gender breakdowns as of 2013. The N.C. House of Representatives has 120 members and the state Senate has 50 members.
Thirty-seven women serve in the state General Assembly, including 29 in the House and eight in the Senate.
Louisiana has the lowest proportion of female members with 12 percent, while Colorado boasts the most — 41 percent.
Only 18 percent of the members of the Virginia General Assembly are women.
About 1,784 females serve as state legislators nationwide, representing 24.2 percent of the total.
Stevens and Randleman say women representatives and senators are on the increase, at least in North Carolina.
“We’ve added quite a few females this session,” Randleman said of the 2014 legislative term.
“I think it’s very much changing,” Stevens concurred. “There are more women now than when I first started.”
And while they dominate the N.C. General Assembly in number, male members have been quite receptive to their female counterparts and willing to let them realize their potential, Stevens and Randleman say.
“I can tell you in terms of being a woman here, the men are very accepting of it,” Stevens said.
“Sarah is in leadership positions, I’m in leadership positions and I think it speaks well of the leadership of the Senate and House to recognize that females do have a lot to offer,” Randleman said of those making committee assignments.
“I think there is a continuing effort to make all members feel equal, and I appreciate the fact they view us in that fashion,” she added.
“And I think the male members feel like the women will really work hard.”
Randleman says recruitment efforts are under way to encourage other females to seek seats in the N.C. House and Senate.
The presence of the so-called gentler sex in the General Assembly can be a plus when legislation related to family or children’s issues is considered, such as abuse and neglect, foster care and a host of others
“I think women in particular take those issues very seriously,” Randleman said, “and I guess our mother instincts come out and we can take (such matters) to heart.”
These can require a degree of sensitivity that women seem more equipped to provide. “When it comes to children, I think women are going to be at the forefront every time,” Randleman said.
An alliance of sorts has formed among the female members of the state Legislature, including a joint women’s caucus, she said.
“We find common ground on a lot of issues, so we tend to work together.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.