Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future

Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future

Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future

Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future


Picking up where other works on women candidates or officeholders leave off, this study explores the history of these women in the USA. The study concludes with an analysis of the current situation of women in the political elite.


Georgia Duerst-Lahti

Most people believe that women have a tougher time winning elections than men do. At this writing in October 1996, only 8 percent of governors are female, the U.S. Congress has only 10 percent women members, and even state legislatures, which are relatively easy to access, count just 21 percent women in their ranks (CAWP, 1996b). These numbers exist in spite of the fact that 53 percent of voters are women. At face value, the numbers indicate that women have a tougher time winning office.

Most people also believe that women who run for office face bias or discrimination. Politics has long been seen as a man's game and those women who try to play it face trouble. Few politically active people cannot tell at least one story about an instance of discrimination against women. Accounts by female candidates of blatant sexism or gender-based questioning add to the belief that women face different treatment because they are women. Given society's treatment of women, the association between politics and masculine activities, and the low numbers of women in office, women do appear to face more obstacles in running for public office, especially at higher levels.

Anecdotes and face value are often deceiving, however. Political scientists know that the incumbency advantage is a primary explanation for the paucity of women in office (Jacobson, 1992). Women have a tougher time winning elections not because they are women, but because they are not incumbents (Darcy, Welch, and Clark, 1994; Carroll, 1994).

The pipeline is another explanation for the shortfall of elected women. It refers to the fact that experience in one elected office is seen as providing credentials for other offices. Serving in elected or appointed office at a local level creates credentials for county or state office. For this reason, the number of women who serve in local office is a critical indicator of the number of women who will be seen as credible candidates for higher office. Since 1972 women have come to occupy a far greater proportion of local offices, but . . .

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