If you’re focusing on voting, look for women who reflect your positions.
Of the states that have had primaries so far, at least eight more have a shot at reaching or surpassing the 50 percent mark in November. “It makes a difference to have women in office,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women bring different policy priorities to the table,” she said. Democratic women have made most of the gains. Currently, 37 percent of Democratic state lawmakers are women, compared with only 17 percent of Republicans.
To reach this milestone, however, a woman must win the general election in every district where at least one is running, a difficult feat. Some female candidates are running in districts favoring the other party, and many are challenging incumbents, who historically almost always win.
“The power of incumbency is so, so strong, particularly at the state level,” said Katie Ziegler, a program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It’s rare for an incumbent to lose their seat.”
Nationally, for women to be at least equally represented as men in all state legislatures, voters in November would need to elect 1,816 more women, nearly doubling the current count of female legislators in state office.
But there is a “gender gap in political ambition,” largely because women are less likely to be encouraged to run and more female candidates are likely to doubt their own qualifications, said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
While men are often motivated to run by a desire to hold public office, women generally need to be triggered by an urge to “do something,” Dr. Dittmar said. “Something got them angry enough or frustrated enough that they decided they needed to be the person at the table making that decision,” she added.
Women made significant gains in state legislatures in the 1970s and 1980s as more of them entered traditionally male-dominated fields like law, business, higher education and activism — professions that often serve as springboards for political careers.
But in recent years, women’s share of representation has plateaued. Women of color have continued making gains in the last two decades, but they still make up just 6 percent of all state legislatures.
“As long as women’s electoral fortunes are linked to the success of the Democratic Party, it makes it difficult to get past that 25 percent mark,” said Dr. Lawless, referring to the current share of female state legislators. “It makes it linked to how well that side of the aisle is doing.”
The Republican Party “has a very pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality,” so they don’t believe in elevating specific groups, she added.
States with long histories of electing women to office, like Colorado — which first elected three women to its House of Representatives in 1894 — have made the most progress.