Flat lines and Forecasting Women’s State Legislative Representation

When you are in the business of keeping numbers in the present, you’re often asked to forecast numbers in the future based on historical trends and variables. In our world of women’s political representation, we’re asked (and often ask ourselves) how long it will take for women to reach political parity in government. Here’s the problem: we can’t forecast the pace for progress when our numbers are moving backward instead of forward. Unfortunately, that’s the trend we saw from 2014 to 2015 for women in state legislatures. Let’s remember the recent history for women in state legislatures. In 2010, we saw the largest percentage decline in the number of women in state legislatures since we at CAWP began keeping the numbers in the 1970s. In 2012, women made up for those losses and netted about 20 seats for women nationwide. Women still remained just over 24% of state legislators, less than the historical height of women’s state legislative representation of 24.5%. WomenStLeg Before Election Day 2014, 1,791 women (24.3%) served in state legislatures nationwide. In 2015, 1,786 women (24.2%) hold state legislative seats. While the aggregate numbers reflect an overall loss in women’s state legislative representation, the partisan trends of 2014 were clearly evident among women candidates. From 2014 to 2015, the number of Republican women state legislators increased by a net of 60 legislators and the number of Democratic women state legislators decreased by a net of 68. Women lost a net of 26 seats in state houses nationwide, but gained a net of 20 seats in state senates. The trend overall, then, remained one of breaking even versus breaking records of women in office. Slide08 Slide09While Republican women gained state legislative seats this year, they still remain significantly underrepresented among all Republican legislators. In 2015, Republican women are just 17% of all Republican state legislators, while Democratic women are 33.8% of all Democratic state legislators. For Republican women, that’s a smaller proportion of their party’s representation than they held in 1995. Democratic women have increased as a proportion of all Democrats over the past two decades, though the flat line of progress is evident in the most recent election years (see chart below). PercentWomenStLEgThirteen more women of color will serve in state legislators in 2015 than served in 2014, reaching 390 women of color in total, or 21.8% of all women state legislators (up from 21% in 2014). These gains are significant in a year when women lost overall, but they are still reflective of a very slow rate of change. What explains the stagnation in state legislative women? A few things are of importance to note. First, women fare worse in elections where Republicans fare best because they make up a smaller proportion of Republican candidates. Moreover, the Democratic losses in Republican years are particularly damaging among women officeholders, who are more likely to be Democrats. Second, the number of women candidates – Republicans and Democrats alike – is not increasing at a pace necessary to see representational gains. We know that women fare as well as men on Election Day when they are in comparable races, but women need to make it to the ballot to experience that same level of success. In 2014, 2,517 women ran for state legislative office, 20 lower than ran in 2010 and just 72 more than the number of women who ran in 2012. The flat line in women’s representation is consistent with the flat line in women’s candidacies, serving as yet another reminder for the need to encourage, support, and mobilize women to run. Lastly, if women are to reach political parity with men, they must do so in both political parties. The trends in 2010 and 2014, both Republican years that saw declines in women’s representation, demonstrate that the dearth of Republican women running and winning makes it hard to counter the Democratic losses among women in the same years. So when will women reach parity with men in state legislatures? At this pace, the prognosis is grim. Instead of forecasting numeric progress, however, I’d rather identify opportunities for numeric change. CAWP’s research provides insights into the challenges and opportunities for women running for state legislative seats, and CAWP programs work to provide the support infrastructure to women making the decision to run. But what else needs to be done to disrupt the stasis and prevent further falls in women’s state legislative representation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. There is much more work to do.