Women legislators honored

Fourteen of Alaska’s 60 legislators are women – ten in the state House and four in the Senate.

From the first territorial legislature in 1913 to the 27th state legislature, only 13 percent of lawmakers have been women, or 87, compared to 685 men over the years.

Those women were honored Friday at a special event for National Women’s History Month. Sen. Bettye Davis organized the historical celebration, and brought together current and former female legislators from across the state.

Some of the notables included Katie Hurley, 92, who served one term in the House in the 1980s, but has been part of Alaska governing since territorial days, first as Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening’s executive secretary. Hurley was chief clerk of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, and was the first Alaska woman to win nomination by her party to run for lieutenant governor (the Democratic ticket lost that year to Republican Gov. Jay Hammond).

Arliss Sturgulewski served in the state senate from 1978 to 1992. She was the first woman in Alaska to receive her party’s nomination for governor, running in both 1986 and 1990, though she lost.

Fran Ulmer also ran for governor and lost, but she was the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor. She represented Juneau in the state House for three terms. Ulmer told the crowd that women do have a special skill for governing:

“We have learned through the culture and the society we live in that to get along it is often very important to be a good listeners first,” Ulmer said. “And to be able to listen in a way that allows you to bring people together.”

Gail Phillips was the second female speaker of the Alaska House (Ramona Barnes was the first). When Phillips was a freshman legislator, Ulmer periodically held gatherings for women legislators at her home. Phillips recalled this conversation years ago as the women were assembling in the back of House chambers for such an event:

“We were talking about the few number of women in the legislature and I made the comment ‘I won’t be satisfied until the legislature is 50 percent women.’ There was a gasp from the front of the room. The majority leader at that time was Max Gruenberg, and he stood up and he turned around and he said, ‘Gail, the men would never have a chance if that happened.’ We’re working on that,” Phillips said.

Nell Scott of Seldovia was the first woman elected to the Alaska territorial legislature in 1937. Since then, women have served in most, but not all, Alaska legislatures.