The Equal Division Rule: Making the Case for Political Gender Quotas in the U.S.

In 1978, the Democratic National Committee voted on new rules for the selection of primary delegates that included the Equal Division Rule. The policy requiring state delegations to the Democratic National Conventions to be made up equally of men and women was also extended to apply to all national party bodies across the states and territories, and it was first applied in the 1980 Democratic Primary—the same year women became the majority of Democratic voters, making up a whopping 60 percent of all voters in the primary contests.

In 1987, the rule made it to the Supreme Court. In the Bachur v. Democratic National Party case, the Court upheld the rule “as a means to broaden public participation in party affairs,” equating it to parties’ ability and right to open their primaries to unaffiliated voters. 

The Courts have since expanded on the right and role of political parties to act as gatekeepers to the electoral process. In 1996, the Duke v. Massey case—in which David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, brought a case against the Georgia Republican Party for excluding his name from the 1992 presidential primary ballot—made it to the Eleventh Circuit Court, which upheld the right of political parties to decide who can be included and excluded on ballots as a means for defining their party platform and principles.

Both the Republican and Democratic Parties have employed their right to include and exclude candidates of their choosing on primary ballots over the past two centuries. In 1972, when former Rep. Shirley Chisholm ran in the Democratic Primary, her name was only included on the ballot in 12 states. While party rights up to this point have been used to exclude candidates, it can also be used in an affirmative action approach and be applied to down-ballot races in the future. 

Waving signs and holding banners bearing the slogan “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights,” thousands snaked through midtown Manhattan in 2015 and sang, chanted and rallied for gender equality. (UN Women / Ryan Brown)

American political parties have the legal right to include and enforce gender quotas for candidate recruitment and ballot inclusion—and they have a history and precedent of enforcing affirmative action rules when it comes to appointed and elected party positions. Yet the U.S. remains one of the few countries where some form of gender quotas do not exist.

A total of 115 out of 192 countries use gender quotas, including 75 percent of the countries which rank above the U.S. for gender parity in national legislatures. Many countries and individual political parties around the world have instituted gender quotas to deal with the ongoing low number of women running and winning elections, countering the idea that the low number of women in elected positions is due to a lag effect which will eventually and naturally catch up.

Most opponents of gender quotas suggest that they are undemocratic because they grant women candidates an unfair advantage not given to men, but this ignores the fact that our own democracy and electoral system finds its basis in granting more rights, opportunities and privileges to white men. Carol Bacchi, a professor of political science, suggests that gender quotas, rather than privileging women with preferential treatment, are instead “an attempt to redress entrenched privilege.”

We are now celebrating the centennial of women earning the right to vote in the U.S., but women make up less than a quarter of both houses in Congress, and no woman has ever held the presidency. Are we willing to wait another hundred years or more to have true electoral and legislative equality?

The implementation of gender quotas isn’t undemocratic—it’s a fair and just attempt to rebalance the inherent structural inequality found in our so-called equal opportunity democracy. 


Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.