Thirty-seven years ago, Shirley Marsh was the lone woman in the Nebraska Legislature.

Despite what was at times an inconvenience, at other times an annoyance or intrusion to some of the 48 other state senators, Marsh hung onto her seat for 16 years. And she served on the powerful Appropriations Committee to boot.

Before the mid-1970s, one or two women generally found their way to the Legislature. In fact, Marsh had to beat another woman in her southeast Lincoln District 29 to get to the Capitol. Incumbent Fern Hubbard Orme had been in the Legislature since 1959.

Besides budget issues -- her first three choices for committees were Appropriations, Appropriations, Revenue -- Marsh, a mother of six and a pro-choice Republican, also was interested in passing bills focusing on issues traditionally of interest to women, including child welfare, abuse and safety restraints, midwifery and pay equity for state employees.

And she was an early leader on clean indoor air because all the smoking in the chamber aggravated her asthma.

At the time, there was no bathroom for female senators in the lounge across the hall from the legislative chamber, and state troopers would have to give her the nod when the men vacated it, then stand guard while she went in.

Marsh, now 85, said it can be difficult for women to run for office and then to serve.

"You have to have an understanding family," she said. "I was fortunate. My family was cheering me on."

Difficult then, and apparently still hard -- in more states than Nebraska.

Women hold fewer than one-fourth of state legislative seats across the country. The number elected to state legislatures had been climbing in this country in the past 18 years -- until the latest elections.

After the November general election, about 1,725 women were in state legislatures, compared to 1,811 before the election.

In Nebraska, the number of women in the state Legislature climbed steadily from one in 1973 to 13 in 1997. Then it fell for six years, climbed to 12 in 2005 and two years later, when term limits took effect, fell to nine.

Next year, 11 women will be state lawmakers -- 22 percent of 49 legislative seats.

Nebraska falls somewhere near the middle of states with the highest and lowest percentages of women in legislatures. In 2009, South Carolina had the lowest with 10 percent. New Hampshire had the highest with 37.5 percent. Nebraska was at 20.4 percent.

It's desirable but not mandatory to have the perfect demographic reflection in state lawmaking bodies -- about 50 percent -- said Bob Sittig, retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor and longtime observer of Nebraska politics.

Having a legislature more reflective of society requires more of a focus on stimulating interest and recruiting candidates who are not necessarily self-starters, he said.

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C., said having more women in state legislatures is both symbolic and substantive.

How can women feel the government has any kind of political legitimacy when they make up more than 50 percent of the population but fill less than 25 percent of legislative seats, she said.

And they stand as symbols to other women and adolescent girls for their inclusion in states' power structures.

Women are acquiring degrees and credentials at the same rate as men. Why would they not be breaking into leadership positions at a higher rate, she asked.

Substantively, women of both parties are more likely to prioritize such issues as health care, reproductive rights, flex time, minimum wage increases and equal rights and equal pay issues, Lawless said.

With women in elected political positions, debate and deliberation look different, she said. And women tend to conduct hearings with more witnesses and more collaboration. Women generally act as facilitators, while men tend to use their power to control the direction of a hearing.

A 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center showed higher numbers of 2,250 Americans surveyed believed women were superior to men in character traits they value in political leaders. They said women were more honest, intelligent, compassionate, outgoing and creative when it came to leadership.

On intelligence, 43 percent said men and women were equal, 38 percent said women were smarter and 14 percent said men were smarter.

Women, they said, were better at working out compromises, keeping government honest, representing constituents' interests, standing up for what they believe and dealing with social issues. Men were better at dealing with crime and public safety and national security and defense, those polled said.

They rated men and women as equally hard-working and ambitious. And men, they said, were more decisive, arrogant and stubborn. Women were more manipulative and emotional.

In the end, 69 percent said men and women were equal as political leaders. Only 6 percent of survey respondents were willing to say women make better political leaders than men.

A Brookings Institute study theorized that women don't have higher representation in elected offices because they have more negative attitudes than men about campaigning for office, they undervalue their qualifications, and they are more likely to be held back by family responsibilities.

Sittig said candidates for the state Legislature don't just drop from the sky. And very little recruitment goes on in Nebraska for state legislative seats.

In the 1970s and '80s, women's groups focused on encouraging women to run for office and orienting them to campaigning.

With Nebraska's Legislature being seemingly part time but actually taking up much more of senators' time both during the session and in the interim, for an annual payment of $12,000 plus some expenses, candidates often feel they have to be financially and occupationally established.

And a number of districts are miles and miles from Lincoln.

"It's really complicated to serve in our Legislature," Sittig said. "Service is not easy unless you live in the shadow of the Capitol."

Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine, chairwoman of the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, understands those complications. She is one of those senators whose district is large -- all or parts of 13 counties -- and far away in north central Nebraska. She is two years into her second term.

Women in the Legislature now tend to be either single or married with no children or children who are adults, she said.

Only one female member, Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue, has young children. And her husband is away for 18 months, working with a private contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's telling, Fischer said, that only one of the 11 female senators has young children. Serving in the Legislature with young kids at home is difficult for both women and men, she said, but especially for mothers.

"I made a very conscious decision to wait until my sons were grown," Fischer said.

Lincoln is a long way from Valentine, and she didn't want to miss any of their growing up, she said. Her sons are now between the ages of 28 and 36.

It's also difficult to be away from your spouse, she said. Some of the older male senators' wives move to Lincoln during the session.

Fischer said it's important to have a good mix of people in the Legislature.

"And, yes, I think women bring a different perspective than men," she said.

But mostly her perspective is that of a person who grew up in Lincoln and then spent part of her adult life in rural Valentine, she said.

A reporter asked her when she first was elected if she was going to be a leader on women's issues in the Legislature.

"I said, 'What's a woman's issue?'" she said.

She had a focus, still does, on education. But that was based on experience, not gender, she said.

Her interest in transportation and telecommunications also is based on interest and experience.

If women have an advantage in the Legislature, it is that they generally are better at understanding relationships, at reading people's reactions, even subtle ones, she said. The whole system is based on relationships and getting along, acknowledging when a fellow senator is upset or stressed or what their feelings are about an issue, she said.

And there's no question, she said, that women can speak up, and speak up with authority, on what many consider to be more male-dominated issues.

"I'm really, really tough," she said. "My experience is that women are tough."

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.