Nearly a century after gaining national suffrage rights, American women represent a majority of voters, yet women represent less than a quarter of state legislators, a fifth of members of Congress, and an eighth of governors.
A careful examination of the trends at the local and state level reveals that unequal representation is even worse than it looks. My group Representation 2020 seeks parity for women in elected office—meaning that at any given moment a woman would be just as likely as a man to hold elected office—in our lifetimes. Yet, as to be reported in our State of Women’s Representation 2015-2016 report, women in fact are not on the road to achieving that goal.
A report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggested achieving parity would take several generations. But it’s too simplistic to map out trends from the past 20 years in anticipation of steady growth to parity. In the real world, representation of women typically stalls or regresses once it surpasses about a third of seats in a state. Unless both major parties show equal readiness to move to parity—and at this point, the Republican Party shows no such trend—the bottom line is stark: Absent new intervention by our political parties and our lawmakers, we simply won’t achieve gender parity nationally nor in most states. Not in our lifetime. Not in our children’s lifetime. Not ever.
My own elected representatives illustrate the problem. Even though Takoma Park, where I live, and Maryland are among the most welcoming of diversity of any city and state in the nation, my representatives are overwhelmingly male.
· Federally, the president and two of the three members of Congress representing me are men. We’ve never had a female president.
· In Maryland, the governor, our other statewide elected officials, and three of my four state representatives are men. We’ve never had a female governor, and only one woman has ever won a statewide office.
· In Montgomery County, the county Executive Council and five of my six representatives on the County Council are men. We’ve never had a female county executive.
· In Takoma Park the mayor is a man, as is my City Council representative. We’ve had one woman among our 22 mayors in the city’s history.
Eighty-five percent of my directly elected representatives are men (17 in 20), while 82 percent of all representatives in executive offices and legislative bodies representing me are men (578 in 744). In fact, men have represented a majority in every single legislative chamber that has ever represented me in my lifetime.
Representation 2020 spotlights a range of approaches to help level the playing field. We must keep recruiting, training, and funding women candidates, of course. But it’s time to consider additional structural strategies. Let me start with the easy ones—how legislative bodies operate and how we hold elections.
First, better internal legislative practices would make it easier for women with young children, aging parents, and households to manage to win and stay in office. We shouldn’t expect our representatives to have to be doing their public duties when families want to have dinner together. We shouldn’t schedule sessions so that balancing family and representation is difficult. We should ensure that women have fair shots to rise in leadership within legislatures and are not shut out by the “old boy’s network.”
Second, we need electoral rules that ensure representation for more Americans. Multi-winner legislative districts with fair-representation voting systems, particularly ranked-choice voting, would both increase how many representatives we get to elect and the likelihood of electing women candidates. Having only one person elected in a district limits our ability to express preferences for diverse representation, which explains the consistent finding that women candidates are significantly more likely to hold multi-winner district seats than single-winner seats in our state legislatures and city councils. The experience of ranked-choice voting in a growing number of cities suggests that reaching out to voters to earn second- and third-choice support rewards a grassroots, positive campaign style that many women candidates embrace.
Yet we must do more. There is simply no substitute for what I call “intentional action”—that is, rules designed to promote parity for men and women in elected office. Without Title IX, women athletes would not have had the opportunities that they do today. We need a similar movement for women candidates.
If we truly want equitable women’s representation in the Senate, for example, the most obvious—if admittedly difficult—change would be to amend the Constitution to require that one of each state’s senators be a woman—that is, a gender quota to go with our current geographic quota of two senators per state. Before dismissing that idea as impossible, consider that the Republican National Committee has that exact requirement: one national committee man and one national committee women from every state.
Nearly 100 nations already have either government laws or major-party rules that establish some degree of intentional action for women in elected office. Some gender quotas are set in national constitutions and statutes, such as Chile’s new requirement that, for the four elections from 2017 to 2029, no party’s nominees for legislative office can be more than 60 percent of one gender. Nearly every European nation has at least one major party with rules establishing minimum numbers of women candidates. Indeed, among the great majority of the 93 countries that rank above the United States in the percentage of women elected at the national level, women candidates benefit directly from intentional action.
State political parties should commit to organize meetings between party leadership and statewide organizations that train and recruit women to run for elected office at least twice a year in order to encourage greater cooperation between party leaders and groups working to recruit women candidates. In conjunction with such meetings, parties should establish Gender Parity Task Forces to identify and support women candidates. Parties should be required to prepare reports each new election cycle on the state of gender parity in the party’s own leadership, in its elected representatives, and in political appointments made by those elected representatives; the number of its women candidates, nominees, and general-election winners in the most recent election; and its plans to recruit women for upcoming elections.
Better still would be for state and local parties—along with the “kingmakers” and would-be “queenmakers” associated with them like unions and chambers of commerce—to set goals of how many women they expect to recruit each election cycle and adopt requirements that at least half of their donations in a cycle need to go to women candidates. National arms of the parties could award “Gender Parity Grants,” financed by donations from party members who care about increasing the number of women in elected office, to the state and local parties that met their goals.
With the approach of the centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020, it’s time to focus on how to shift from the goal of parity for women at the polls to parity for women in our representation. Let’s keep backing recruiting and training efforts and let’s push for structural changes that increase opportunities for women to run, serve, and lead. But let’s also develop American models of “intentional action” via party rules and legislative action so that we can truly have equitable representation in our lifetimes.