Ask A Researcher

October 2014

Women's Representation in Elected Office


Dr. Deborah White is a professor of sociology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She serves as coordinator of the Tri-College National Education for Women’s Leadership (NEW Leadership) development Institute, a public leadership program for women that she established in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the United States (U.S.) Congress. Rankin’s home state of Montana granted women suffrage in 1914, preceding ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote across the nation. Rankin’s electoral victory made her not only the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, but also the first woman elected to a national legislature in any western democracy.

How much progress have women made in gaining access to elected offices since then? Today women hold 20 of the 100 (20%) seats in the U.S. Senate and 79 of 435 (18.2%) seats in the House of Representatives. Since Rankin was elected to Congress, women have gained an average of two seats every Congressional session (every two years). At this rate, women’s share of Congressional seats will not reach 50 percent for 170 years (until 2184). This may be an overly pessimistic estimate since women's past gains were less than in recent years. Even if we instead project forward using the average increase of 6.7 seats per congressional session since the 1992 Year of the Woman, women’s share of seats would still not reach 50 percent for 54 more years (until 2068).

Specifically North Dakota has only sent two women to Washington, D.C. Jocelyn Birch Burdick served briefly after she was appointed in 1992 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Senator Quentin Burdick. Senator Heidi Heitkamp is the first woman from North Dakota elected to the Senate. No women have represented North Dakota in the House of Representatives.

Cross-National Comparisons

Women's representation in elective offices in the U.S. is low compared to many other countries. The U.S. has never elected a woman head of state. However, 50 other countries have had women presidents or prime ministers. In 17 countries, women have served in these roles more than once. A 2014 report by the International Parliamentary Union showed that the U.S. ranked 86th out of 188 countries in the world for percentage of women in a lower or single House of a national legislature (e.g., House of Representatives in the U.S.). In fact, the U.S. has been losing ground compared to other countries. Since 2004, we have dropped in rank from 61st to 86th. The U.S. has the second lowest percentage of women in a national legislature among all Western industrialized country. Only Ireland ranks lower, with 15.7 percent of its lower House seats held by women.

State-Level Offices

Seventy-two women hold statewide elective executive offices in the U.S., including five women governors and 11 lieutenant governors. North Dakota became the first state to elect a woman to a statewide office in 1893, when it elected Laura Eisenhuth as Superintendent of Public Instruction. Three women currently serve in statewide elected executive offices in North Dakota:

    • Kelly Schmidt, State Treasurer
    • Kirsten Baesler, Superintendent of Public Instruction
    • Julie Fedorchak, Public Service Commission

Nearly one-quarter (24.2%) of all seats in state legislatures in the U.S. are held by women. However, women's percentages across state legislatures vary considerably, with a high of 41 percent in Colorado and a low of 12.5 percent in Louisiana.

In the Upper Midwest, Minnesota ranks highest in women’s representation in a state legislature. Women hold 33.8 percent of seats in Minnesota’s legislature, ranking the state 4th highest in the nation. North Dakota ranks 41st in the nation and below all other states in the region for its percentage of state legislative seats held by women. Only 24 (17%) North Dakota legislators are women, the same number as were serving in 1989.

Reasons for Women’s Underrepresentation

Why are there still so few women in elected office? The primary reason is a scarcity of women candidates. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, in 2012 only 298 women filed to run in House races in 48 states. Despite representing less than one woman per race, this was a record number of women candidates. Only 36 women filed to run in 19 Senate races. In 14 Senate races, no women filed. And only four women filed to run in any of the 11 gubernatorial races (i.e., state governor’s races).

Increases in women’s representation are also stymied by the power of incumbency. Simon and Palmer (2001) studied Congressional races from 1978 to 1998 and found that re-election rates for incumbents averaged 95 percent. Turnover is slowed as incumbents are repeatedly re-elected. For instance, Congressman John Dingall, the longest serving member of Congress currently in office, has served in the House of Representatives for over 58 years (since 1955). And since there are far fewer women than men incumbents, fewer women benefit from the power of incumbency. Incumbents' stronghold has a dampening effect on the number of women (and men) who run against them. For instance, in 2002, 80 U.S. House of Representative incumbents ran unopposed in the general election.

Finally, evidence suggests that women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office, even when they have similar credentials. Political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Logan Fox found that women were significantly less likely than men with similar qualifications to be encouraged to run by formal political actors including elected officials, party leaders, and political activists. They also received less encouragement than did men from their family, friends, and work colleagues.

Looking ahead:

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that women candidates are as likely as similar male candidates to win. But women’s representation won’t increase until more women run. As key political actors, such as party leaders, activists, and elected officials, invest more effort in recruiting women candidates, and society in general encourages more women to throw their hats in the ring, we will likely see women’s representation increase.

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