The Iowa House has voted to require "gender equality" on local boards and commissions appointed by city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors.

Representative Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City, says more than half of Iowans are women, yet only 18 percent of the members of four key local boards and commissions are women. "The status quo is not working. It is not working. Women are not being asked to serve and therefore the best qualified citizens are often not being selected at the local level."

Representative Lance Horbach, a Republican from Tama, was a leading opponent of the bill, saying the "most qualified" person — regardless of gender — should be appointed to boards and commissions. 

"We are way beyond — and if not, we’re going to go there — beyond the time of discrimination," Horbach says. "Man, woman, race — I don’t care what it is — we are beyond that."

Representative Annette Sweeney of Alden was among the Republican women who opposed the concept of "gender equity" on local boards and commissions. "My husband doesn’t care to be on the Ladies Aid at church, even though he could," Sweeney says. "There are just some things that we’re wired to do differently." The bill, however, does not apply to private groups like churches and civil organizations, just local governments.

Representative Jodi Tymeson, a Republican from Winterset — the first women to attain the status of brigadier general in the Iowa National Guard, doubts women are being discriminated against on local government boards.  "I’ll just ask this rhetorically: maybe they’re being asked and saying no because they’re busy with work and family and other things," Tymeson says.

Representative Mark Smith, a Democrat from Marshalltown, voted for the bill. "As I sit here and listen to the debate, I was thinking about a quote from former President Grover Cleveland. In 1908 he made the observation that no God-fearing woman in America would want the right to vote," Smith says. "What we’ve seen is time and time again this classic arguement about the advancement of rights for our people. The question is what comes first — the behavior or the changes in law that promote the changes in behavior?"

Mascher, the Democrat from Iowa City who was the bill’s chief proponent during House debate, says there’s a lot of "untapped" talent in local communities. "The women are out there. They are ready and willing to serve. They just need to be asked," Mascher says. "And we need to do a little better job of reaching out and seeking their help."

The bill passed on a 71 to 27 vote. If the bill becomes law, "gender equity" will be required on local boards and commissions on January 1, 2012.

State government boards and commissions have been "gender balanced" since 1987. Governor Chet Culver this week nominated 205 Iowans to serve on state boards and commissions; 100 were women and 105 were men.