Losing Ground as We Make History: On Women’s Representation in Public Office

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the 96th anniversary of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. We’re marking the occasion with a series of posts that touch on the importance and impact of women in politics. To dig deeper, pick up our latest issue featuring in-depth reporting and interviews on the gender gap and the ways feminism has shaped politics. You can also join the celebration by taking our feminist voting pledge!

This year, America celebrated the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first woman presidential candidate of a major party. It’s a great benchmark for women’s representation in office. Come November, it’s possible that women will finally shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. There is no higher office than leader of the free world. However, as we celebrate this event, we also need to be cognizant of a problem women are facing down the ballot. Namely, women are not gaining any ground in the fight to achieve equal representation in government as a whole, and there are many places across the country where we’re losing the hard fought progress we’ve made.

Take our state legislatures for instance. In California, my home state, women have already been losing ground for years. In 2005, 31 percent of their state legislators were women. Today, that number has fallen to 26 percent. Even Washington state, which currently ranks fourth in women’s representation in the state legislature, has seen some losses in recent years. At its height of equality in 2000, Washington’s state legislature was 40.8 percent women. Today, women represent 34 percent—that’s a loss of 14 women across their two chambers.

When you look at the number of women in state legislatures overall, the outlook isn’t much better. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2010 America saw the largest decline of women in public office since they began tracking it in the 1970s. Today, women’s representation in these legislatures is 24.4 percent, just barely up from post-2014 election’s 24.2 percent. Women just aren’t gaining ground. We need to put direct resources towards this effort if we are going to make a difference.

It’s not just in the state legislatures where women are losing ground or failing to make gains. With this year’s retirement of Senator Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the history of Congress, it looks like for the first time in decades the Maryland Congressional Delegation won’t have any women at all. However, it won’t be the only one. There are nine other states that currently don’t have a woman in their congressional delegation and three more that have never had a woman. When it comes to governorships women fare even worse. There are currently only six women governors in the entire country. And things don’t get better when you zoom down to the local level. Of the 1,391 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, 262 or a mere 18.8 percent are women.

So what can we do to fix this?

During the primary races several candidates announced their intention to support and focus on down ballot candidates. Senator Bernie Sanders said he would make it a priority to focus on down ballot candidates as he exited the primary. Hillary Clinton has also signaled that she would be making down ballot candidates a priority. That’s wonderful news for the Democratic Party, but it’s got to be about more than just support. Republicans have been doing a great job of supporting their state and local candidates for years. However, they haven’t made recruiting women a priority and it shows in the low proportion of women they have in office.

What we need from our leaders, organizations and the public at-large is sustained focus and support getting women to run for public office. From my years of running Emerge America, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, I’ve learned that women need a different type of encouragement than men. In fact, women usually need to be asked not once but repeatedly to run for office before they will even consider it. What’s more, women tend to have less confidence in their experience and abilities than men. Even extremely successful women will judge themselves harshly and think they aren’t qualified for a position. Women are also more likely to want training before they are willing to jump into the political arena. We need to understand this and approach women accordingly if we want to make progress.

It starts with all of us. Today, you can help America make progress down the path to gender parity by asking a woman you know to run. Then, ask her again. Encourage her and tell her that her abilities and skills are needed in our decision-making bodies. You can tell our leaders that you want them to focus on getting more women into elected office. Ask your mayor and governor to appoint women to positions of power in their administrations. And you can support organizations like mine who are actively engaging in this work and the women in our program.

As we ring in Women’s Equality Day, let us celebrate the strides we have made while recognizing that we still have work to do in our effort to increase the number of women serving in public offices.


Andrea Dew Steele co-founded Emerge California in 2002 to get more women elected to office in Northern California. Andrea worked tirelessly to develop a top notch training program and in 2005 she founded Emerge America to replicate the model in all 50 states. Emerge currently has training programs in 16 states across the country with plans to expand in the future. Andrea also served as Political and Philanthropic Advisor to Susie Tompkins Buell and worked for many years in D.C. as a policy analyst and fundraiser. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Tufts University and a M.A. in International History from the London School of Economics.