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Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future

May 9, 2014

By Dr. Sue Thomas, Senior Research Scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) and co-editor of Women and Elective Office: Past, Present and Future, available on Oxford Scholarship Online.

Women and Elective Office

Women and Elective Office: Past, Present and Future offers the latest research on women candidates and officeholders in the U.S. The book features a comprehensive look at the history and status of women, their prospects for the future, and why women in elected office matter to American democracy.

Since the 1970s, the numbers and diversity of women candidates and officeholders have grown. More recently, several historically significant barriers have been shattered. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.  In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the presidency and Sarah Palin was the second female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket. In 2013, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first open lesbian in the U.S. Senate, the New Hampshire congressional delegation was the first all-female delegation in history, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii became the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii were the first women combat veterans in Congress, and Oregonian Tina Kotek was the first openly lesbian House Speaker in statehouse history.

The news about women’s impact is also very positive, with scholars concluding that women have made a difference in their representational roles. Whether by bringing previously private sphere issues to public agendas (such as domestic violence), transforming issues hidden from public view to public crimes (such as sexual harassment), or expanding the education of male politicians and influencing their policy choices (such as gender parity in insurance policies), women have made space for action on issues that were historically afforded little attention. Although institutional structures, rules and norms, party, leadership positions, and temporal context all affect the degree to which women can make a difference, their contributions are felt throughout the political process.

Yet, despite significant strides in their presence and impact, women in U.S. politics are still a small minority. In 2013, they were only 18.3%of the U.S. Congress, and women of color were 4.5% of all members of Congress.  In that year, 24% of state legislators were female, women of color were 4.9% of total state legislators, and only five women served as state governors. At the judicial level, women were 22% of all federal judgeships and 26% of all state-level judgeships.

So, what accounts for this ongoing imbalance?  The essays in Women and Elective Office illuminate the multiple and interrelated factors that explain the situation. These include the gendered effects of the actions – (and inactions) of political elites and the institutions they run, such as parties and PACS, and the rules and structures that govern elections and policymaking.  Analysis of disparate media framing of women candidates and officeholders, and stereotypical voter perceptions of women in politics add to the story. Together, these lead to a considerable dampening of women’s ambition for political office compared to men. An important aspect of Women and Elective Office is the careful attention paid to the historical and current contingent, shifting, and complex ways in which gender affects women’s presence and success in politics.

In all, the story told by Women and Elective Office is, in many ways, a story of triumph.  The book chronicles remarkable achievements made even more noteworthy by the struggles to secure them.  On the other hand, it has been and, in some ways still is, a story of enduring and evolving challenges to securing full and equal access to and participation in U.S. politics for women as a group as well as groups of women.  The book is an essential guide to understanding the past, present, and future of women in all echelons of government.

Discover more: the 'Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Case Study in the Rhetoric of Female Political Figures' in Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future is now free and available to read until the end of August.