The 1987 law that first designated March as Women’s History Month acknowledged women as “early leaders in the forefront of every major progressive social change movement.” In 2021, more women than ever — over 2,200 — are serving in state legislatures, with increasing control over the levers of power and change. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports that 90 women now serve in leadership positions in these bodies, another record.
As NCSL tracking shows, women held about a quarter of all seats between 2009 and 2018, but that began to shift upward in 2019. Women now account for about 30 percent of all state legislators. Though women represent nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population, they hold less than half of the legislative seats in every state but one, Nevada, where they have 60 percent.
Percentages don’t tell the whole story. More than 150 women serve in state legislative bodies in New Hampshire, about 36 percent of 424 possible seats. Women have a similar share of the 120 seats in California, but in the Golden State, a few dozen voices speak for nearly 20 million females. This is 30 times the number residing in New Hampshire, and more American citizens than the entire population of every state but three. Twice as many Democratic women are in state legislatures as Republican, but in red states such as Georgia, Florida and Michigan, women hold seats in the same proportion as in California.
Gains at the state level are mirrored in the 117th Congress, where women now hold a record 27 percent of seats. The election of the nation’s first female vice president and a presidential agenda focused on economic and physical security for women could set the pace for national and state policies to remedy inequities that have caused women to suffer disproportionately during the pandemic.
Longest-Termed Woman Legislator Shares Insights
Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Texas has spent decades doing this work. The longest-serving woman and longest-serving African American in Texas history, Thompson is now in her 25th term, more than any other current female legislator. Among many other accomplishments, she has authored bills addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment, minimum wages, insurance coverage for contraceptives and the state’s first and only alimony law.
She shepherded the passage of a bill that would have enabled women with the same qualifications as men and who did the same work to receive equal pay, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry. “I’ve been trying to make a comeback on that one for some time,” she says.
Thompson has been baffled by inequities in health-care coverage for women. She had to get legislation passed to secure insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives, while insurers paid for Viagra without any prodding from the Legislature. Similarly, it took legislation to overcome opposition to insurance coverage for a second Pap smear in cases where the first one was inconclusive.
“It did not make sense that they wouldn't be willing to pay a hundred dollars to get a second Pap smear done, but would be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for chemotherapy in the event that that there was cervical cancer,” she says. Thompson passed another bill to make 3D mammograms available to women, imaging that she says can detect tumors as small as “a dot at the end of a sentence,” enabling early detection and treatment.
Thompson assumed office in 1973, and as the number of women in politics has grown, the public has gained increasing appreciation for the ways that their experiences and ideas are important to the political process, she says. Getting even closer to equal representation would change things, she believes.
“I think that we would not be fighting so much,” says Rep. Thompson. “We would probably be ensuring that under-insured or non-insured persons get health care — I’m looking forward to women making further gains.”
The Center for American Women and Politics provided research assistance for this article.
Note: Hover cursor over the map below to see the numbers by state, and click on the state to see the names of the legislators and their party affiliation. After clicking on a state, click on it again to return the map to its full view.
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This map is subject to human error and may reflect inconsistencies in available public data.