A year ago this month, the first woman ever to receive a major party’s nomination for president ran for the nation’s highest office. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid was a story of some progress, but it also highlighted the glaring shortage of women in political positions — particularly within the Republican party.
Women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population, but have stalled out at around a fifth to a quarter of the nation’s elected officials. In 1971, women made up a little less than 5 percent of state legislators. That number rose to around 23 percent by 1999. It has stayed relatively flat over the last 18 years. Women in 2017 occupy only 25 percent of state legislative seats. Proportions are similar for the House (19.2 percent women) and for the Senate (21 percent women). The disparity is especially apparent within the Republican party. In Congress, Republican women make up about 10 percent of the caucus — a number that has barely budged since the 1980s, according to Jessica Robinson Preece, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
So, what can be done to increase the number of female officeholders? Preece co-authored a March 2017 study in the American Journal of Political Science with fellow BYU researchers that found that the answer lies with party leaders — they simply have to say they want more women in political office.
The authors of the study, Christopher F. Karpowitz, J. Quin Monson, and Preece, worked with a Republican party in a red state, with the aim of attempting to increase the number of women sent to the state convention. The state caucus meetings to select state convention delegates were generally attended by men and women in about equal numbers. However, the delegates to the convention themselves end up being 75 to 80 percent men.
In order to try to improve those figures, the authors sent four kinds of letters to each state precinct chair. The first was a neutral control, which simply asked precinct chairs to be welcoming to all candidates, with no mention of gender. The second asked state chairs to “encourage two or three women in your precinct to run for positions as precinct leaders or delegates this year.” The third asked state chairs to read a statement encouraging caucus voters to consider the importance of increasing the number of women delegates. The fourth asked the chair both to recruit women candidates and to read a paragraph about the importance of women delegates to the caucus.
Asking precinct heads to recruit more candidates increased the number of women selected slightly, as did reading a letter to caucus goers about the importance of women candidates. But the letter asking precinct heads to do both had the most significant effect. Only 37.5 percent of the precincts that received a control group letter elected any women candidates. That number jumped to 45.4 percent for precincts in which leaders were asked to recruit candidates and encourage participants to increase the number of women delegates. Similarly, the control group delegates were 24.6 percent women, while those in the group that asked for both interventions were 30.6 percent women.
A six percent jump in the number of female delegates with minimal effort is striking. But it makes sense, given current research on why women candidates are underrepresented in office.
When women run for office, they do fairly well, and win about as often as male candidates. The problem is not with voters, but with getting women to run for office in the first place, Preece told ThinkProgress. “There’s a fair amount of research that suggests that even objectively well qualified women don’t view themselves as well qualified, and therefore tend to have fewer political ambitions,” Preece said. Additionally, political recruiters tend to ask more men than women to run for office.
“I don’t think this is a grand conspiracy. Usually, it’s a function of who they know,” Preece said. Potential female candidates also believe that they will receive less support from party leaders.
Women candidate representation is low in part because party leaders haven’t done a great job recruiting female candidates. Elite signals that the party needs to recruit and elect more women can have a powerful effect on the number of women in office.
Republican outreach to women is dismal
The growth in women in office over the years has occurred almost entirely in the Democratic party, where women now make up about a third of elected officials in Congress, as well as on the local level.
“Getting to gender parity may be quite difficult,” Preece told ThinkProgress. But particularly on the Republican side, “there’s some low hanging fruit here.”
Republicans have often placed themselves rhetorically in opposition to women’s political movements, Preece pointed out. Voters and potential candidates may reasonably believe that Republican leaders do not want women candidates — and Republicans seem well aware of this image problem. Last month, news surfaced about a group of conservative donors and operatives who started an initiative called Winning for Women, which seeks to support female Republican candidates ahead of the 2018 elections.
Rob Anderson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party said he plans to adopt some of the BYU study’s suggestions. He highlighted efforts like Winning for Women and studies that suggest companies with women in leadership positions tend to make better business decisions. “Women vote more often and more regularly than men do,” so they should be represented in office, Anderson told ThinkProgress.
“There’s a lot of women who are not comfortable running for a party in which [Donald Trump is] at the top.”
A 2016 Pew Research poll found that women are more likely to identify as Democrat, but Kathleen Anderson, president of the Utah Federation of Republican Women, said the idea that women are less likely to be conservative is not a barrier to recruitment. “Women were 56 percent of the voter turnout in 2016,” she told ThinkProgress, “and we know that our voter turnout in Utah is overwhelmingly conservative.”
But other barriers still exist. Anderson noted that she had observed that women were more reticent about asking for money than men, which can be a major hurdle when running a political campaign. She also said that while she had been involved in Utah politics for 20 years, she, herself, was not planning on running for office, especially not while her husband was the head of the Republican party in the state.
Holly Richardson, a former Republican State Legislator in Utah and a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, is on the board of Real Women Run, an organization dedicated to encouraging women to run for office in the state. She was enthusiastic about the potential for increased outreach and candidate recruitment. But she also believed Donald Trump was a major obstacle to recruiting women for the Republican party.
“There’s a lot of women who are not comfortable running for a party in which he’s at the top,” she said.
Richardson said she was underwhelmed by the commitment of the Republican party to women candidates overall. “I know it’s not politically correct to say since I am a Republican, but I don’t see much more than lip service to having women in political office.”
Republicans, she said, were reluctant to see candidate recruitment as a gendered issue. And yet, “the problem that we have is that there are so few women that actually run, that it becomes a gendered thing, because we have such a dearth of women in elected office that we know that there are issues that are not getting the kind of robust conversation and consideration that they should get.”
Democratic party has more women than GOP — but it’s not enough
Democrats have many more women in office. Yet, activists express frustrations that sound quite similar to Richardson’s. Preece, the study author, points out that the Democratic party already vocally signals that it wants to increase women’s participation, and has had some success doing so. But, she added, “black women are among the most active supporters of the Democratic party, and yet they’re still underrepresented as a portion of their contribution to the Democratic vote.” Black women make up 7.4 percent of the U.S. population, but are only 3.5 percent of state legislators, and less than 1 percent of statewide elected executives.
Brianna Wu, who is running for the House of Representatives in Massachusetts in the greater Boston area, told ThinkProgress that the Democratic Party could do much more to recruit women.
“I don’t know how anyone can look at the actions of the Democratic party and not come to the conclusion that they’re not that interested in women being represented,” she said. In particular, she pointed to comments by party leaders indicating that they would support pro-life candidates in some races. “They give us a song and dance about how they’re going to win in certain states, but I think that that’s crap,” she said. “I think the truth of the matter is that our party doesn’t make women a priority.”
While the most recent elections in Virginia, Minnesota, and Washington saw Democratic victories — particularly for women of color, as well as queer and transgender people — the party has a long way to go. Michelle Jett, chief of staff for Illinois State Representative Carol Ammons (D), said structural issues make it difficult for women to run for office.
“To get any type of diversity in Democratic candidates, money has to be taken out of the electoral process. It’s such a hurdle for anyone who is not well-connected, upper middle class white male. The thought of how much money you have to raise and whether people are going to be willing to give it to you is generally the first thing that stops people from running,” she told ThinkProgress. “So significant campaign finance reform would have to happen before the Democratic Party is going to see a wave of diversity in its candidates.”