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More Women Are Holding Political Office — But Not Everywhere

Even before women received the constitutional right to vote, they were serving in elected office. In the early 20th century, candidates like Marian Towne in Oregon and Rachel Emma Berry in Arizona won seats in their state legislatures. And in 1916 — four years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment — Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. But more than 100 years later, women are still underrepresented in state and national politics.

Which isn’t to say that women are as much of a rarity in political office as they were just a few decades ago. Women’s electoral fortunes have improved in the last 40 years. A record number of women were sworn into Congress last year — but the share of women in the House of Representatives is still just 23 percent, and in the Senate, 26 percent.

But to really understand what it’s like for women to run for office — as FiveThirtyEight is doing all week — you have to look beyond Congress. To do that, we tapped decades of data gathered by researchers at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, which tracks women who have served in multiple levels of elected office, including Congress, statewide executive office and state legislatures.

The picture at the state level isn’t very different from Congress: 18 percent of the nation’s governors are currently women, and women make up 29 percent of state legislators. Not too long ago, those numbers were lower, as women have recently been winning seats in statehouses at historic rates all over the country. In 1991, for example, women only accounted for 18 percent of state legislators nationwide. But today women make up the majority of the Nevada State Assembly, the first time that has ever happened in a state legislative chamber.

Place matters in politics, and the quirks of state culture can do a lot to elevate women’s chances or create persistent barriers. For example, with very few exceptions, the South’s state legislatures have a smaller share of women than the national average, while states in the West and Northeast tend to have higher shares.

Just as place matters, so does party. Democratic women are increasingly well-represented in state legislatures and Congress, but Republican women are not. For instance, the recent uptick in the share of female state legislators was almost entirely driven by Democrats. Since 1983, the number of Democratic women in state legislatures more than doubled, from 586 to 1445. Over that same period, the number of Republican women also increased, but less dramatically, from 399 to 667.

And the differences between Democratic and Republican women are especially striking when you take a look at how much diversity there is within their party as a whole. Over the past decade, the share of women among Republican state legislators has never cracked 20 percent. But by 2019, by contrast, more than 40 percent of Democratic state legislators were women, up from 31 percent in 2009.

There is one arena where Republican women are almost as well-represented as Democratic women: in governor’s mansions. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size. Over the course of the country’s history, only 44 women have served as governors, and there are 20 states where a woman has never held the top office. But the distribution between the parties is fairly even — about 40 percent of the female governors have been Republicans, while 60 percent have been Democrats. Women have run deep-red states like South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alabama, while big, blue states like New York, California and Illinois have never elected a woman governor.

Looking at all of these states and roles together, it’s tempting to try to come up with some kind of grand ranking system that can assess which states are the best for women who run for office, and which are the worst. (Confession: We were tempted.) But we discovered that there’s no one state — or office — where women either shine or falter. Instead, even though some states are more likely, on the whole, to have women in elected office, the vagaries of politics shape opportunities in unexpected ways.

Take Nevada, which had that landmark 2018 election for its state house. It’s also one of the 20 states that has never had a female governor. Or look at Vermont, which currently has the fifth-highest share of women in the state legislature, but is also the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has one of the most male-dominated legislatures in the country, but also very recently elected a woman to serve two terms as governor. You can take a look at how your state stacks up below:

Where does your state rank with female representatives?

Share of congressional delegation and state legislators that are women and female governors by state, as of January 2019

Share that are women

Congressional delegation

State legislature
Has a female governor?
Nevada 66.7%
Colorado 11.1
Oregon 14.3
Washington 58.3
Vermont 0.0 40.0
Arizona 36.4
Maryland 0.0 38.8
Alaska 33.3
Rhode Island 0.0 38.1
Maine 50.0
Illinois 25.0
Michigan 37.5
New Mexico 40.0
New Hampshire 75.0
New York 31.0
Connecticut 28.6
California 34.5
New Jersy 14.3
Hawaii 50.0
Idaho 0.0 31.4
Minnesota 50.0
Montana 0.0 30.7
Georgia 12.5
Florida 27.6
Iowa 50.0
Nebraska 20.0
Massachusetts 36.4
Kansas 16.7
Ohio 16.7
Wisconsin 20.0
Virginia 23.1
Pennsylvania 20.0
Indiana 18.2
North Carolina 13.3
Utah 0.0 25.0
Arkansas 0.0 24.4
Delaware 33.3
Missouri 20.0
Kentucky 0.0 23.2
Texas 15.8
South Dakota 0.0 22.9
North Dakota 0.0 22.0
Oklahoma 14.3
South Carolina 0.0 16.5
Alabama 22.2
Wyoming 33.3
Louisiana 0.0 15.3
Tennessee 9.1
Mississippi 16.7
West Virginia 40.0

Sources: Center for american women and politics, U.S. House of representatives

The reasons for these variations are complicated, and in some cases highly state-specific. In Vermont, for example, it’s not necessarily that voters don’t want to elect a woman to Congress: Incumbency can be a big barrier when the state only has three seats in the House and Senate, and two of the men who hold those roles have been serving in Congress for decades. Wild deviations in how much state legislators get paid, how many terms they can serve and the length of the legislative session can also influence women’s decision to run for statehouse seats in the first place.

But they can also help explain why women’s experiences of running for office are so distinct. Even in a banner year for female candidates, like 2018, the barriers and opportunities are different if you’re a woman running for state legislature in Indiana or governor in Massachusetts. It’s a lesson we learned over and over again while talking to 97 different women who have run for office as part of our When Women Run project. Every woman’s experience is different — even as they all strive to correct the same historical imbalance.

Want more coverage of women in politics? Explore our oral history project, “When Women Run.”

Ella Koeze was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.