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Women gain uneven footholds in Congress, state legislatures

Women gain uneven footholds in Congress, state legislatures
© Stefani Reynolds

A century after winning the right to vote, women are making slow but steady progress in building political power in Washington and in states across the country — albeit with a substantial and growing partisan divide.

The number of women in office is a story of progress and plateaus — a steady incline in the number of congressional seats filled by women has been tempered by blips of stagnation, a feature repeated in state legislatures and in governorships as well.    

After 100 years of voting and running for office, women still hold fewer than a quarter of the seats in Congress. They do not fare much better in other offices.

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“I hate always being the glass half empty person, but I think it’s always really important to remember that you’re looking at a population where 51 percent of the population has less than quarter representation in Congress, 30 percent in state legislatures, and nine governors,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

“We’re not even close to parity, and the work needs to continue.”

But behind the middling statistics lie other stark realities — women’s gains in political circles have come almost entirely from Democrats.

Of the 127 women currently serving in Congress, Republicans hold just 22 seats, or 17 percent.

Women hold almost 40 percent of Democratic seats in the House and Senate. On the Republican side of the aisle, just 10 percent of members are women.

“It’s not like both parties are lagging. One party is reaching a number that is not totally offensive if you care about representation — it’s not parity, but it’s a lot closer than the other,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia. “Unless both parties are going to play the game, you can’t make real gains.”

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Republicans actually lost ground in 2018. As Trump motivated a surge in Democrats seeking office, 35 Democratic women were elected to Congress for the first time. Just one new Republican is a woman.

Research has shown that women, if they run, are just as likely to be elected.

But women are far less likely to run if they aren’t recruited, and experts say Republicans have not mounted the same efforts as their Democratic counterparts.

“The Democratic Party has made it clear they actually prioritize electing and running a more diverse array of candidates. They’ve explicitly said that — recruiting women and people of color is one of their central goals,” Lawless said.

“Republicans generally eschew identity politics,” she said. “I’m not saying they don’t want women to run or they’re not willing to back people of color, but they’re not putting the recruitment piece at the top of their to-do list.”

Neither the National Republican Congressional Committee nor Rep. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikWomen gain uneven footholds in Congress, state legislatures Republicans cast Trump as best choice for women The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Pence rips Biden as radical risk MORE (R-N.Y.) responded to requests to talk about their recruitment efforts.

The same partisan gap is prevalent in state legislatures as well. 

Though Republicans and Democrats fill the nation’s 7,383 state legislative seats in nearly equal measure, Democratic women hold 1,453 of those seats. Republican women hold just 662 seats.

There are some state-level efforts to combat that.

Jo Ann Davidson, a former Speaker of the Ohio state House and the national committeewoman for the Republican Party of Ohio, started an eponymous leadership institute for women in her state after she left office. She ran in the first place, she said, because she felt there were too few female voices in the process.

“After I left, I realized that it’s kind of hard for women, and if you don’t have some kind of organization that helps them and supports them and tries to convince them of what they need to do to put themselves in line for Speaker, we’ll never have another one,” she said.

The Jo Ann Davidson Leadership Institute asks the Republican Party chair of each county to nominate women to go through the training program.

“Men never wait for someone to say, ‘Hey you’re such a great guy. You should run for office,’ ” she said. “Women are not as confident of their own abilities. Secondly they wait for someone to ask them to run, and third they worry about raising money. And if you can help them over those three barriers you can help them move to the ballot a lot easier.”

Democrats have relied on EMILY’s List, the powerful outside group that recruits and supports pro-abortion rights women, as a pipeline for three decades. 

The Republican version, the Susan B. Anthony List, has yet to prove an equal powerhouse, though it has increasingly backed Republican women.  

“Women raise comparable amounts of money to men in comparable races, but I’m told it’s harder for them to raise it,” Walsh said of conversations with candidates. “It may take them 10 calls to raise $1,000, but it might take one call for men to raise the same amount.”

Societal pressures still play a role as well. Women tend to delay their political careers for family concerns, shortening their “political trajectory,” Walsh said, another reason state legislatures may edge out Congress for a slightly higher percentage of women.

But other norms are changing, especially for women of color.

“The question of electability is one that haunts women and becomes this terrible Catch-22,” said Walsh. “It really limits the potential for women of color when they’re thinking of running for other offices either in majority white districts or thinking about running statewide.”