This past weekend, I attended the “Elect Her: Campus Women Win” program hosted by Texas A&M, which is designed to get women involved in politics. The daylong event, a collaborate effort between Running Start and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), encourages college age women to run for student government and future political office, by teaching young women how to craft a message, how to raise money, and how to effectively campaign. In addition to hands on training, several guest speakers attended the event and talked about their experiences in running for political office, from the local school board to the Texas legislature. The entire program proved highly interesting, particularly when the Elect Her program director began to point out just how few women are actually involved in U.S. politics. Despite the fact that women constitute over 50% of the U.S. population, women hold less than 25% of political offices at all levels.[i] In fact, the United States ranks 75th worldwide for the percentage of women in the national legislature, below even Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.[ii]
At the federal level, women are highly underrepresented in all branches of government. In the U.S. House of Representatives, 84 women serve as legislators, constituting only 19.3% of the body. Twenty women serve in the U.S. Senate (20%). In the executive branch, only six women currently serve in the 27 cabinet and cabinet-level positions.[iii] Historically, women in the cabinet have been overrepresented in Labor and Health and Human Services, as well as in the positions of Environmental Protection Agency administrator and U.N. Ambassador. No woman has ever served as the Secretary of Defense, Treasury, or Veterans Affairs.[iv] And in the judiciary, although three of the nine currently serving Supreme Court Justices are women, only four women have ever been appointed to the court.[v]
At the state level, things are hardly better. While more women participate by percentage in state level legislatures, the national average is still only 24.2%. In only three states (Colorado, Arizona, and Vermont) do women hold more than 35% of the legislative seats. In no states do women constitute more than 42% of the legislature.[vi] In state executive branches, women hold 23.6% of elected executive positions, but only six states currently have female governors. Historically, only 27 states have ever had a woman serve as governor. [vii]
Things are even worse for women in politics at the local level. Currently, slightly under 17% of mayors in U.S. cities of more than 30,000 are female. [viii] And only 13 mayors in the largest 100 cities are female.[ix]
And yet, women are incredibly necessary for the U.S. to have a truly fair, open democracy. At the base level, women are over half of the population—they deserve fair representation. But getting women involved in politics is about more than just numbers. When more women are in power, there are better outcomes. Women are more likely to prioritize policies which help children and families. They are more likely to push for transparency in government. And they are more likely to advocate for citizen involvement.[x] Female participation in the government is by no means a cure-all, but it is necessary for any free and fair democracy.
Unfortunately, gender parity in the U.S. government is still a distant dream. However, programs like Elect Her are a step in the right direction. These programs are instilling in a new generation of girls the confidence and skills to know that women can make a difference in government. There is reason to hope.
[i] “Current Numbers of Women Officeholders.” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. 2015. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/Current_Numbers.php
[iii] “Current Numbers of Women Officeholders.”
[iv] “Women Appointed to Presidential Cabinets.” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. June 2014. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/documents/prescabinet.pdf
[v] “Women on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. 2014. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/USSupremeCourt.php
[vi] “Women in State Legislatures for 2015.” National Conference of State Legislatures. February 5, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2015.aspx
[vii] “Statewide Elective Executive Women 2015.” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. February 2015. Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/documents/stwide.pdf
[ix] “Current Numbers of Women Officeholders.”
[x] Carroll, Susan, ed. The Impact of Women in Public Office. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.