House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, tended to business in her office overlooking the state Capitol on Wednesday, the first day of the 2020 General Assembly.

Virginia made “herstory” when the General Assembly convened Wednesday.

A record number of women now serve in the assembly, making up nearly 30% of the body. Twenty-nine of the House of Delegates’ 100 members are women, while females account for 11 of the state Senate’s 40 members. That roughly reflects the percentage nationally of women who serve in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Nearly three-quarters of Virginia’s female lawmakers are Democrats, who gained control of the legislature in the November elections for the first time in a generation.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, became the first female speaker of the House of Delegates, considered the second most powerful position in Virginia behind the governor. She struck another milestone as the first member of the Jewish faith to hold the job.

Both chambers are experiencing a series of firsts for females this session. Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, became House majority leader — as well as the first African American to hold the post. Suzette Poupore Denslow of Richmond, who has served under five governors, was elected House clerk. The new staff director of the House Appropriations Committee is veteran analyst Anne Oman. State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, is president pro tempore and also the first African American in the position. Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, ascended to chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee.

In remarks to the House Wednesday, Filler-Corn noted “a new torch is being passed today, one that ushers in a modern era.”

That “modern era” comes as the nation marks the centennial year of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the approaching 100-year anniversary in 2024 of the first women elected to the legislature. Sarah Lee Fain of Norfolk and Helen Timmons Henderson of Buchanan County broke the gender barrier with their elections to the House of Delegates in 1924. But the trend didn’t last long. After the 1930s, no woman served in the assembly until 1954, and females didn’t begin making political inroads until the 1970s. Eva F. Scott, an Amelia County Republican, became the first woman elected to the state Senate in 1980.

The 2020 General Assembly is the most diverse ever, including the first Muslim woman in the state Senate, Democrat Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield County. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has the most members in its history, at 23. The General Assembly, the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, commemorated its 400th anniversary last year. It continues to make history — though in 2020 the first syllable is “her.”

— Pamela Stallsmith

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