Why Women's Presence in Politics Has Stagnated

Women have held less than 25 percent of all state legislative seats for years. But both parties are trying to recruit more female candidates.
by | September 14, 2015

If Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina can run for president, why don't more women run for state legislative seats? For about 20 years now, women have made up slightly less than a quarter of all state legislators.

"We've sort of been stuck somewhere between 22 and 24 percent, really since about 1997," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

It's been tough for women to keep up their numbers. Republicans have made enormous gains at the legislative level since 2010, but women tend more often to run as Democrats. Women make up about a third of Democratic legislators nationwide, but less than a fifth of Republicans. Of the 1,793 women currently serving as legislators right now, 60 percent are Democratic, Walsh said.

Now both parties are seeking to recruit more women candidates.

"Women are 53 percent of the electorate and they're vastly underrepresented in elected office," said Ellie Wallace, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).

Since 2012, the RSLC has run a program called "Right Women, Right Now," which seeks to identify, recruit and train women candidates for various state offices. Last year, the program helped elect 138 women nationwide, Wallace said. Next year, the RSLC is hoping to recruit a total of 500 women to run, either for legislature, lieutenant governor or secretary of state.

Democrats are also seeking to boost their numbers. Emerge America, which runs recruitment and training programs for progressive women in 14 states, has launched a campaign called "Follow Hillary's Lead," hoping to excite prospective politicians about the idea of appearing on the ballot with the likely first female major-party presidential nominee.

"We want to make it not just the year of the woman, but many women," said Andrea Dew Steele, the group's founder and president.

These recruitment efforts are important because various studies, including a widely cited 2013 report from American University, indicate that women are less likely to seek political office than men, even if they have similar resumes. Women who are elected, however,  are far more likely than men to have participated in a training program, Walsh said.

"Women do need to be recruited more than men," she said. "In our surveys, men were much more likely to say it was largely their own idea, that nobody had to ask them."

Other women can make the best salesmen. In states like Arizona, Oregon and Washington -- where women have traditionally played leadership roles -- it's easier for neophytes to see themselves achieving success.

"You get a couple of women in and they are your best recruiters, they really are," said Steele, the Emerge America president.

A paper presented at the American Political Science Association meeting over Labor Day weekend looked at legislative candidates in 18 states dating back to the early 1990s. The study found that certain areas have proven more conducive to women candidates -- states that are liberal, districts that are closer to the state capital and states that don't have term limits.

Although part of the promise of term limits was that it would open up seats to political newcomers, it's largely backfired, according to Jason Windett, a political scientist at Saint Louis University and coauthor of the new paper.

"If politicians are being termed out and parties have to replace their candidate pool every six, eight or 10 years, they're going to go with folks they're familiar with, which often means white men," Windett said.

That seems to have been the case in California. Since 2003, California has slipped from fifth to 20th place among states in terms of the percentage of women serving in the legislature. Earlier this month, Assembly Democrats picked Anthony Rendon to replace term-limited Speaker Toni Atkins.

"There are six women retiring in this cycle and most of them have endorsed men to succeed them," said Katie Merrill, a Democratic consultant involved in efforts to recruit women candidates in California.

Getting women to run for office is a tough sell. Women tend to get involved in politics because they are passionate about an issue, as opposed to being driven by pure career ambition, which is more common among men, Merrill said.

Women are more likely than men to want to stay in their present positions -- whether working on issues at a nonprofit or anything else -- rather than entering the world of politics.

"The political environment is so toxic right now that women are less interested in getting involved," said Merrill.

But the RSLC has started a program that seeks to engage more women in party politics, rather than just prepping them to run for a specific office. The program, which offers a weekend of training once a month over a six-month period, is up and running in Connecticut and Massachusetts but will expand to a half-dozen states next year, said Wallace.

"The big problem with recruitment is you have to have a robust pipeline of women in local office," Steele said. "That's where we on the progressive side need to do a lot better."