Change and Continuity among Women State Legislators: Evidence from Three Decades

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Previous literature documents the steady increase in the number of women serving in state legislatures as well as the lingering differences in demographic characteristics and policy priorities between male and female officeholders. Yet, this research does not address the question of evolutionary change among women state legislators themselves. Are women serving in contemporary state legislatures different from their female colleagues of previous decades in the personal and political characteristics and legislative agendas they bring to office?

To answer this question, we use data collected on all women state legislators serving in 15 states in 1972, 1982, and 1992 and a stratified random sample of male legislators serving in the same chambers during the same time periods. This two-stage analysis allows us first to focus on the changing profile of women state legislators; and secondly, to consider whether these changes are unique to women or common to all state legislators. The analyses confirm the hypothesis that the profile of the "typical woman state legislator" has changed significantly in the last three decades.

Women's progress in gaining elected office at all levels of government has been rather slow over the last three decades. Women currently hold 22 percent of statewide elective executive offices, 19 percent of all local offices, and just under 11 percent of congressional seats. Yet nowhere have the gains made by women been more dramatic, or better documented, than in state legislatures. In 1970, women held just 4 percent of all state legislative seats, while today women hold 20.7 percent of those seats nationwide (Center for the American Woman and Politics 1995). The 1992 election ushered in the largest single group of newly elected women of any election in United States history. Many of these women won their seats having never before held public office, signaling a challenge to the conventional wisdom that there are historically prescribed characteristics for successful women officeholders. Our purpose in this research is to examine the typical profile of women state legislators over the three decades in which women made the greatest electoral gains and to examine whether an increase in the number of women elected to legislative posts has been accompanied by a change in the type of women serving. Are women serving in contemporary state legislatures significantly different from their female colleagues of previous eras?

PROFILES OF THE WOMAN STATE LEGISLATOR: TRADITION AND INDICATORS OF CHANGE

Since Emmy Werner (1968) first considered the characteristics of women legislators, theoretical and practical explanations for women's underrepresentation in legislative bodies have centered around family obligations and gender role conflict (Kirkpatrick 1974; Stoper 1977; Sapiro 1982), electoral structures that favor males (Carroll 1985; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994), background characteristics of male and female candidates (Diamond 1977; Thomas and Welch 1991; Thomas 1991), political culture variables in the states (Hill 1981; Pierce 1989), and party recruitment biases (Fowlkes, Perkins, and Rinehart 1979; Mandel 1981; Nechemias 1985, 1987). The profile of the female legislator emerging from this important body of work is that she was apt to be less educated and older than her male colleagues and more likely to be motivated to seek public office by civic concerns and the desire to make life better for others. She was unlikely to have been tapped for the seat by her local party elites (even though she may have worked for years within the party ranks), and have little expressed desire to pursue higher office or a full-time career in politics. In short, it was a rather passive path to office, dependent on political ties to others and situational factors largely beyond her control.

Once in the legislature, whether by choice or discrimination, these women tended to serve on committees handling traditional "women's issues" like education and social welfare and were all but absent from the "power" committees handling financial, budgetary, and economic legislation (Diamond 1977; Thomas and Welch 1991). …