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How Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton made history

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Black women are making history in state governments across the country. A record-setting six Black women now lead legislative chambers in their states. Reporter Laura Benshoff brings us this story of one Pennsylvania politician's rise and how it fits into a national trend.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Last week, State Representative Joanna McClinton became the most powerful person in the Pennsylvania House, the majority speaker. After accepting the speaker's gavel, she jokingly tapped the podium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOANNA MCCLINTON: Can I try it out?

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

BENSHOFF: Then she got serious when talking about the power that it symbolizes.

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MCCLINTON: And we in this moment in time right now have to pinch ourselves, because it was almost 250 years before a woman could stand at this desk not just to give a prayer but to get the gavel.

BENSHOFF: Forty-year-old McClinton has spent less than a decade in elected office. A native of southwest Philadelphia, she's now the first woman and second African American to ever hold this post. In an interview, McClinton says she hesitated when people first approached her about running.

MCCLINTON: You know, I'm just generally a risk-averse person. So the idea that I put myself out there and have to raise money - it just seemed intimidating and too much.

BENSHOFF: She says when she started to talk about all of her experience with supporters, she saw how it did add up to being a good candidate.

MCCLINTON: Hearing me talk about the things I'd done as a public defender, the things I'd done in my personal life as a youth minister at my church that I finally realized, like, I, too, could take up the space.

BENSHOFF: McClinton is now one of a half dozen Black women presiding over legislative chambers in the U.S. While a small number, it's still the most there has ever been, says Debbie Walsh with the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

DEBBIE WALSH: So when someone like a Joanna McClinton becomes the speaker of the Pennsylvania House, we really notice. In Pennsylvania, it's also notable because now both the Senate and the House are led by women.

BENSHOFF: And those leadership numbers have grown alongside another trend. For years, the number of women seeking state legislative office at all had stayed pretty flat. But in 2018, the number of women running to be in these chambers spiked. Walsh says that year, a new wave of female candidates ran following former President Donald Trump's election.

WALSH: We saw record numbers of women running for those seats, and we saw record numbers of women coming in.

BENSHOFF: And those numbers have kept climbing in subsequent cycles. Democrats currently elect more women, but the GOP has been increasing its number of female candidates faster. Donna Bullock, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, says she's seen that change firsthand since she and McClinton took office in 2015.

DONNA BULLOCK: When we got elected, Pennsylvania ranked second to last when it came to elect a woman to office. And here we are seven years later - not only have we moved up from that ranking. We've also elected the first woman to the speakership.

BENSHOFF: McClinton's rise was no accident. She campaigned to flip the state House, which Republicans had controlled for more than a decade. Democrats now hold a slim two-vote majority. Bullock says McClinton gained her colleagues' trust even before that.

BULLOCK: Some of the challenging times while we were in the minority, she held us together.

BENSHOFF: Her new work as speaker is just beginning. McClinton says she hopes to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage and school funding, and she'll be doing it with the awareness that her very presence could inspire others.

MCCLINTON: A constituent of mine is a public school teacher, and he sent me a photograph of his students watching the swearing in on Tuesday. So I hope, you know, a young lady in that circle of students might say, what is she doing, and how can I do something like that?

BENSHOFF: If she does, that student won't have to be the first.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff