Female State Legislators Miss Out on Record Number of Seats After Clinton Defeat

  • Women lawmakers fail to win 25% of seats in first count
  • Men are more likely to run even as women have equal success

Female candidates fell short of forecasts that their record number in last week’s elections would boost women’s presence in state governments, according to preliminary results.

At 24.8 percent, the percentage of women in statehouses will remain about the same as it’s been since 2008. Women won an estimated 1,834 seats in 46 state government elections, up from 1,805 but less than those needed to top the 25 percent many predicted, the National Conference of State Legislatures said. Contested races could alter the tally.

About 2,781 women sought state elected office, a record encouraged by Hillary Clinton as the Democratic party’s nominee for president. She lost to Republican Donald Trump. Women in state legislatures tend to bolster support for issues including paid leave and closing the gender pay gap.

“I’m not the only one who thought having a woman at the top of the ticket might mean more women would get elected, or that it would drive enthusiasm,” said Katie Ziegler, program manager for the NCSL’s women’s legislative network. “I did think it would definitely be past that 25 percent mark.”

More than 50 races are still too close to call, although women still won’t hold a quarter of the seats if they win them all, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. From the 1970s through the 1990s, women gained in state legislatures with every election cycle, she said. Since then, progress has stalled. The same pattern holds in the U.S. House of Representatives, which held at 104 women this year.

“It’s frustrating to see this kind of stagnation year after year,” Walsh said.

One difficulty is that incumbents, usually men, have an advantage, Walsh said. Of women running this year, 46.4 percent were incumbent, 24.5 percent were running for an open seat and 29.1 percent were challenging an incumbent, she said.

Breaking In

“It’s hard to break in,” said Virginia state Senator Barbara Favola, a Democrat elected in 2011 and re-elected in 2015, who was encouraged to run by a departing seat-holder. “An incumbent has a huge advantage, and they tend to stay in office.”

There’s no shortage of women who might run; they just don’t consider it, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University who has studied the gender gap in politics with a male colleague from Loyola Marymount University.

In a 2012 survey of 4,000 male and female lawyers, business leaders, political activists and others who meet the profile of potential political candidates, only 46 percent of women had considered running, compared with 62 percent of men, according to the research. The gap was virtually unchanged from 2001, even with the high-profile candidacies of women such as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, the paper found.

“Women are less likely to get recruited to run for office and they are less likely to be encouraged to run,” Lawless said, citing her research. “Women are also far more likely than men to doubt that they are qualified to run for office, in part because they believe we have a sexist political environment and they would have to navigated a sexist political terrain.”

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There’s little evidence that the system is sexist at the state or local level, she added. Women win as often as men, raise as much money and their media coverage is similar when they decide to run, she said.

The divisive election between Clinton and Trump, with gender at the forefront, may have kickstarted some women, said Walsh of Rutgers. The university conducts a non-partisan program every March to help about 150 women learn skills needed to run for office. Applicants typically wait until close to the start date to register, she said, although Last week, after Trump’s victory, as many as 30 women did so.

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