Today, 51% of the population in the United States is female, but women represent only 23.7% of elected officials in Congress. Even in the year 2020, the state of Vermont has never sent a woman to Congress. But women win elections at the same rate as men when backed by one of the two major parties. So then where does this disparity in representation come from? There are a number of barriers women face in politics, to make only mention of misogynistic bias about a woman’s ability to serve in Congress. But even prior to the stump and ballot box, significant contributors to the unequal representation of women in government are the successive remnants of a solely male-dominated government and a lack of female candidates.
When we discuss representation in this form, we are talking about descriptive representation – the election of a representative that shares characteristics with their constituency with the goal of winning support for legislation that would benefit that group. Descriptive representation is not the sole consideration in electing officials, but is valued in American government because of the diversity of the population and the need for policymakers to understand the unique experience of different demographics.
Female candidates often face more gendered discrimination than male candidates. Female representatives report voters and media posing questions related to their home life, their emotional state, and their appearance more often than to their male peers. But these examples of social discrimination surprisingly do not hold enormous weight in elections. Based on data from a 2015 UC Berkeley study examining campaign donations over three decades, there’s little information to suggest that women are at a financial disadvantage in donations from individuals or PACs (Political Action Committee). Furthermore, women are just as likely to win elections as men (excluding the highest office of President), proving that they are successful when they are able to achieve primary candidacy.
Moreover, the women who were historically elected typically served in Congress as a courtesy. In a tradition called “widow’s succession”, the widow of a Senator or House Member who had died in office would be offered their husband’s seat as a courtesy and would be expected to step down at the time of the next election.
Some of the longest serving women in Congress entered public office this way. Incumbents statistically have a higher chance of winning reelection than challengers do defeating them, and most incumbent Senators and Representatives have been men. That presents women with even less opportunity to run as they often have to wait for a seat to be vacated before having a good shot at winning the election.
These lingering historic facts present a barrier to young women politicians. In order to reach gender parity in representative government, we need to get more women running for office by giving female politicians tools to overcome or destroy historic barriers. By making resources available and developing frameworks for professional mentorship in publicly elected office, the path towards candidacy can be clearer for many women who had not considered running as part of their career. There are countless nonpartisan organizations and nonprofits that seek to provide training and mentorship to women who want to run for office to close the informational gap and eventually, the gender gap in representation. Women have proven that they can win, there just need to be more women in the race to reach gender parity in our highest offices.