The Straight Story on Women in State Legislatures: The Numbers May Surprise You


By Katie Fischer Ziegler, Policy Specialist, Women’s Legislative Network of NCSL

New Hampshire’s State Senate made headlines this year as the first legislative chamber to have a majority of women members.  Political scientists will be busy studying how this unprecedented and exciting instance of gender parity affects the policy process.  Looking beyond the Granite State, however, the makeup of state legislatures is rather different. Nationwide, just 24 percent of all state legislators are women, a ratio that has increased by less than four percentage points in 16 years.  Why aren’t there more women?  What are the barriers keeping women away from state legislatures?  It sounds simple, but it all comes down to throwing your hat in the ring.

The first female state legislators were elected in Colorado in 1894.  Women gradually joined the ranks at statehouses over the following decades, and reached a national ratio of almost six percent of all legislators in 1973.  1992 is widely dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” mostly due to the large number of women elected to Congress that year, but it also is notable as the year when women legislators finally reached 20 percent of the national total.

Several states have had consistently high female representation in recent years. Colorado’s legislature leads the nation in 2009 with 39 percent women.  There are 12 states with at least 30 percent women legislators, clustered in the Northeast and the West.  Conversely, there are 14 states with fewer than 20 percent female members. South Carolina’s legislature has just 10 percent women, and its Senate has no women at all.  The states that historically have lower rates of women’s participation are mostly in the South. 

While the number of female legislators does increase with each election, the rate of increase has slowed dramatically.  Over the 16 years leading up to 1992, the ratio of women legislators jumped more than 12 percentage points; in the 16 years since, it has increased by less than four percentage points.

The slow growth in the number of women legislators is not because they aren’t winning their races.  The National Women’s Political Caucus found that electoral success is not dependent on a candidate’s sex.  When comparing state legislative candidates running as incumbents, challengers, and for open seats, women won their races just as often as men. 

So how to explain the slowdown?  The Center for American Women and Politics tracks women running for office; their data show that the number of female major-party candidates for state legislatures has not increased significantly since 1992.  (The incremental growth in the number of women elected since then is largely attributable to incumbents retiring, thus opening more seats.  Incumbency is the single greatest factor in predicting electoral success.)  Without more women running for office, it is unlikely there will be a significant increase in women elected.

Hoping to identify the reasons why women don’t run, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox surveyed thousands of men and women in their Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study (http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2008/05_women_lawless_fox.aspx).  They found that men were 35 percent more likely than women to consider running for office.  Men and women in the survey pool had similar professional backgrounds and, on paper, were equally qualified to be candidates.  However, women were less likely than men to think they were qualified to run for office, less likely than men to be recruited to run, and less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.  Tellingly, women were much more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of household tasks and childcare – leaving little time for the “3rd job” of holding elected office. 

There are a number of things we can do to increase the number of women in state legislatures:

  • Get the word out that when women run, women win. Remove false perceptions of a biased political environment.
  • Recruit women to run.  Women are just as likely as men to respond positively to recruitment, and the “ask” can come from anyone, not just political party leaders.
  • Support organizations that provide campaign trainings for women, to keep the “political pipeline” of female candidates filled.  The White House Project is nonpartisan.  EMILY’s List  and the Emerge America program host trainings for Democratic women; the National Federation of Republican Women and several state Excellence in Public Service Series train Republicans.
  • Work towards improved childcare and elder-assistance programs, to allow women with family responsibilities the opportunity to consider public service.   

It is crucial that the nation’s state legislatures reflect the demographic makeup of the population.  Female legislators are more likely than men to give attention to traditional “women’s issues” related to children and healthcare, and they are more likely to include diverse viewpoints in the political process.  Women have been documented as having more collaborative, communicative leadership styles. 

 

The 1,793 women serving in state legislatures, and the great things they’ve accomplished, are an inspiration to future candidates.  Help reverse the slow-growth trend and recruit a woman you know to run today!   

More information: Women in State Legislatures 2009