Political parties play an important role in American politics. Parties conduct elections, organize government, and help voters understand where candidates stand on issues. The precise role that parties play varies across states and levels of office. A party can recruit and train candidates, provide endorsements and funding and act as a gatekeeper to a candidate when they seek nomination. Women are certainly not new to party politics; in fact, even before women won the right to vote, they were active in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Today’s women voters are more likely to identify with one of the major parties than their male peers are, but they remain underrepresented in party leadership—which continues to affect them in both direct and indirect ways.

Future Research Directions

More research is needed on how women access party leadership roles. Leaders of local and state parties may go on to run for office, making the party organization itself an important candidate pool. Because party leaders can affect the recruitment and nomination of candidates, achieving gender parity in party leadership would facilitate gender balance in elective office. New work by Crowder-Meyer about the role of local parties points to the need for more data on women’s local officeholding and recognition that parties are often critical at the very start of a political career. It is also essential for research to examine the role of parties in funding local and state legislative women candidates; to date, most campaign finance analysis has focused on Congress. Because candidates—including congressional candidates—stand to benefit from party endorsements, and because parties at all levels try to recruit candidates and clear the field for their preferred candidates, more research on the internal decision-making of party organizations—including the congressional committees of both parties—is needed.

Denise L. Baer, “Women, Women’s Organizations, and Political Parties,” Women and American Politics: New Questions, New Directions, ed. Susan J. Carroll, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003) 111-45; Rosenthal 2008.
Niven, David. “Melody Crowder-Meyer, Candidate Recruitment and Party Networks: How the Beliefs and Behavior of Local Party Leaders Affect Women’s Representation (2011). Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference, Chicago, IL.
Dominguez, Casey B. K. “Does the Party Matter? Endorsements in Congressional Primaries.” Political Research Quarterly 64.3 (2012): 534-544.

Further Reading

image of book Where Women Run: Gender and Party in the American States
Kira Sanbonmatsu | 2006

This book argues that political parties are actively involved in encouraging—and discouraging—candidates for state legislative office. Drawing on 2001 and 2002 interviews conducted in six states and a 2002 national survey of state party leaders and legislative party leaders sent to all fifty states, Sanbonmatsu finds that party gatekeeping affects women's state legislative representation negatively. She finds that party leader doubts about women's electability and the gendered nature of party leaders' social networks—which are usually male—reduce the likelihood that women will be recruited to run for office.

Image of report "Party Strength and Activity and Women's Political Representation at the Local Level"
Melody Crowder-Meyer | 2009

Using a national survey of local party leaders conducted in 2007 and 2008 and a large database of local candidates, Crowder-Meyer considers the role of parties in shaping women's candidacies for local office. She argues that local office is a critical entry point to politics and that parties are important recruiters for this first rung on the political ladder. Crowder-Meyer connects party recruitment activities and beliefs about women's electability to the presence of women candidates, finding that parties do indeed shape women's representation at the local level.