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Despite encompassing more than 50 percent of the US population, women continue to represent less than a quarter of state legislative seats, and only 17 percent of the US Congress. The scarcity of elected women is even more dramatic when one considers the gender imbalance of elected officials since the nation’s founding. Had more women held office throughout history, would today’s American political landscape be unrecognizable? Though we can only imagine what society might look like if history told a different story, research can help us determine the impact women who have served in elective office have had on American politics.

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Future Research Directions

More research is needed on how women experience legislative life, as well as on how women are navigating the contemporary era of partisan polarization and under what conditions they are able to cooperate across party lines. With more women of color holding office than ever before, new studies are needed about how race and gender work within legislative institutions and the factors that can enhance the influence of all women legislators.

If more women are elected to legislative office, more women will be available to serve in both parties and across legislative committees, and more women can seek leadership positions. The more women who are elected, the more likely it is that women legislators can represent the diversity of all women’s experiences, including those of conservative women. Certainly, the women who have served to date have already left their mark.

Noelle Norton, “Women, It’s Not Enough to be Elected: Committee Position Makes a Difference,” Gender Power, Leadership, and Governance, eds. Georgia Duerst-Lahti and Rita Mae Kelly, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995); Cindy Simon Rosenthal, “Climbing Higher: Opportunities and Obstacles Within the Party System,” Legislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead, ed. Beth Reingold, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2008) 197-220.
Ronnee Schreiber, Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Further Reading

image of book The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress
Michele L. Swers | 2002

This book investigates the effect of gender on congressional behavior, with attention to all stages of the legislative process from bill sponsorship to committee behavior and roll-call voting. Swers compares the Democratically-controlled 103rd Congress with the Republican-controlled 104th Congress using statistical analysis. She finds that women are more likely to champion women's issues, with the strongest gender differences at the bill introduction stage. She also finds that gender differences in legislative behavior depend on majority party status.

Image of report Legislating By and For Women: A Comparison of the 103rd and 104th Congresses
Mary Hawkesworth, Kathleen J. Casey, Krista Jenkins, Katherine E. Kleeman | 2001

This Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) report is based on interviews with women serving in the 103rd and 104th Congresses. The qualitative report shows that women play important roles throughout the legislative process on a wide range of issues. The report provides case studies of crime, women's health, health care, reproductive rights, and welfare reform. The report offers behind-the-scene accounts of how women in Congress sought to legislate for women. It also identifies the institutional constraints and challenges they face in working together as women.

image of book "Representing Women: Congresswomen's Perceptions of Their Representational Roles" - Women Transforming Congress
Susan J. Carroll | 2002

This chapter examines the perspectives of women in Congress based on interviews conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) with women serving in the 103rd and 104th Congresses. Carroll finds that virtually all of the female members of Congress act as "surrogate representatives" for women across the country. The congresswomen see commonalities in the experiences of women and feel an obligation to represent women broadly, even beyond their districts. At the same time, congresswomen's perspectives differ by factors such as district characteristics, party, and race/ethnicity, which leads to different approaches to surrogate representation.