The 11 women sworn into Virginia’s House of Delegates last month helped boost the number of women in state legislatures past an important, if symbolic, threshold: Women now hold one-quarter of all legislative seats around the country.
And that number may skyrocket after this year’s midterms. Thousands of women have filed to run for offices up and down the ballot, spurring hopes among some that 2018 could become a new "Year of the Woman."
There are currently 1,866 female members of state legislatures across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). That is 25.3 percent of the 7,383 seats in 99 state legislative chambers.
It marks the first time in history that women have crossed the one-quarter threshold. As recently as 1991, women held fewer than one in five state legislative seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Arizona and Vermont have the highest proportion of women serving in state legislatures. In both states, 40 percent of legislators are women. In five other states — Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Illinois and Maine — more than a third of the state legislators are women.
Katie Ziegler, who runs NCSL’s Women’s Legislative Network, said those states have always been near the top of the list for women legislators.
“We’ve seen in those states that have high numbers [of women], they’ve been pretty consistently high for a long time,” Ziegler said. “That says that the culture is such that women running is common.”
There are varying explanations for why some states tend to elect women more often than others. One theory holds that in Western states women have a longer history of managing government than in Eastern states; the first women state legislators were elected in Colorado and Utah.
Another theory cites a tradition of direct democracy in New England, where women had more say in public decisions. Vermont, especially, has been at or near the top of the rankings for decades.
More conservative states, especially those in the South, tend to have fewer women legislators than Western or Northeastern states. Fewer than 15 percent of state legislators in Oklahoma, West Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi are women (Wyoming, where just 11 percent of legislators are women, bucks the trend).
Democrats are more likely to elect women candidates, though Republicans have narrowed the gender gap between the two parties, thanks in part to wave elections in 2010 and 2014 that swept so many Republicans into office.
Of the women serving in office today, 1,141 are Democrats and 704 are Republicans. Eight represent third parties, and the 13 women who serve in Nebraska’s state Senate are technically nonpartisan.
Democrats may be poised to expand their lead once again, as a surge in political interest — mostly driven by opposition to the Trump administration — spurs more women to both run for office and donate to candidates.
“Where the attention is focused and where we see the most interest among women who are running, it seems to be women who are Democrats,” Ziegler said.
EMILY’s List, a group that helps female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, says more than 30,000 women have expressed interest in running for some public office. More than 300 Democratic women have filed to run for Congress, and 50 women have expressed interest in or filed to run for seats in the Senate. Eighty women have filed to run for governor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
The last time women passed a symbolic threshold came in 1992, the so-called "Year of the Woman." After those elections, women held just over 20 percent of state legislative seats.