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More Women Than Ever Are Serving in State Legislatures, but Not Nearly Enough

According to a new survey, women hold a historic amount of seats in US state legislatures: just under 25 percent.

by Kimberly Lawson
Feb 15 2017, 8:02pm

Ilhan Omar, a State Representative in Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen via Getty

According to figures released earlier this month from the National Conference of State Legislatures, approximately 1,830 women will serve in state legislatures this year. Of the 7,383 seats in the country's 99 state legislative chambers, women will hold a historic 24.8 percent. While that's the highest percentage of female representation in state government ever, the increase is barely a half percent (0.4) up from 2016.

"These are really just blips in what looks like a flat line," Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, told The Hill.

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In terms of reaching gender political equality on the state level, Wyoming has the most work to do: Only 10 women are representing in a 90-seat legislature. Nevada, on the other hand, has the highest percentage of female state lawmakers with 25 women taking up 63 positions. However, that's still only 39.4 percent.

Leadership roles also continue to mostly go toward men. This year, only 66 women across the country will serve as Speaker of the House, president of the Senate, speaker pro tempore, Senate president pro tempore, majority leader, or minority leader.

Experts say the reason women remain underrepresented in politics is that they simply do not run, and even when they're recruited, they believe the system will work against them. A study published last September in Political Research Quarterly found many women believe they won't be supported strategically or financially by party leaders. "When women hear, 'Would you consider running for office?' from a political recruiter, their interpretation is, 'The party leader wants me to run but I'm probably on my own with regard to putting together a campaign and support network,'" wrote Jessica Preece, one of the authors.

Other obstacles that deter women from running for office have to do with how they're perceived in the media. Nichola Gutgold is a professor of communication at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley campus, and the author of the forthcoming book Still Paving the Way for Madam President. Women are judged more on their appearance than men are, she says. "The media tends to focus on such things as hairstyles and clothing choices for women more so than they do for male candidates," she tells Broadly. "If I was running for political office and a story appeared on what I looked like instead of what I can do for voters, then that would disadvantage me."

Even when a woman is not successful, just seeing her run motivates younger, upcoming women to run.

"Another way we've seen them disadvantaged," she continues, "is a judgment on their motherhood skills. For example, when Sarah Palin was the vice presidential candidate in 2008, there were numerous articles that questioned how good a mother she could be since she's so busy out on the campaign trail. We very rarely see an article about a male candidate with a family questioned about whether or not there's someone 'at home watching the children.'"

Despite the low numbers of women in state government, Gutgold remains optimistic about more women entering office—perhaps in part because of Hillary Clinton's presidential loss. "My polling has revealed that whenever a woman runs for office of any kind, it shows women and men that the office is open to anyone and that it is possible. Even when a woman is not successful, just seeing her run motivates younger, upcoming women to run."

"We're seeing a lot of new women's voices emerging," she continues. "The international women's marches are good examples of the advocacy that is happening around women's empowerment. Hillary's loss has motivated otherwise reticent women to speak up and to get into the arena. I think we will see more and more women running for offices of every kind."