Increasing women’s political power is a multi-site, multi-racial, and bipartisan project. This report draws upon interviews with 192 political actors within five states – Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania – to examine both the state of and change in women’s political power from 2010 to 2023. State-focused investigation allows us to better analyze the gender and intersectional dynamics at play within state political ecosystems, which we define as the interconnected systems, networks of individuals and organizations, and overall environments in which both formal and informal politics occurs.
In both our interviews – which we conducted between November 2021 and June 2023 – and this report, we emphasize sites of commonality across states, while also making clear the factors that vary across and within states to shape women’s access to political power. Interrogating the differences in women’s experiences by political party and race/ethnicity is also central to our research goals, analysis, and prescriptions for progress. We offer more detail on these state, partisan, and racial/ethnic differences in the following chapters.
Rethinking Political Power
- To maximize women’s political influence, it is necessary to rethink our definition and measures of political power to include not only women’s representation in elective offices at the local, state, and federal levels but also their influence as legislative staff, lobbyists, state agency leaders (appointed and high-level staff), campaign practitioners, party staff, political consultants, political donors, corporate political action committees, industry leaders, unions, grassroots advocates and activists, and voters.
- Achieving gender parity in women’s representation does not necessarily equate to gender parity in women’s political power. Within political institutions, the power to allocate resources, set agendas, and shape culture is distributed unevenly across rank, role, and party. And even when record numbers of women are elected, they contend with slow-to-change norms and structures that have upheld a status quo benefitting white men.
Motivating Action to Increase Women’s Political Power
- Partisan differences in both the assessment and problematization of women’s political underrepresentation create distinct conditions for and hurdles to interventions aimed specifically at increasing women’s political power. Republicans are less likely than Democrats to identify systemic and distinct barriers to women’s political power and more likely than Democrats to cite women’s doubts and/or preferences as the primary cause for their political underrepresentation.
- Motivating political leaders to recruit and support women candidates as a strategy for electoral success and increasing party power has been one route toward increasing the number of women in office but is not centered on building women’s political power. In this approach, women’s political inclusion is conditional on their perceived capacity for success, which (1) relies on those currently in power viewing women candidates as viable; (2) is context-specific and potentially time-bound; and (3) is most likely to disadvantage women of color.
Building Support Infrastructures that Serve All Women in Politics
- Existing support infrastructures for women in politics are helpful but insufficient to see gains in women’s political power. And, where they exist, they do not equally serve all women.
- Interview subjects, including the leadership of organizations committed to women’s political participation, emphasize that the support infrastructures for women in politics in their states are: under-resourced and heavily reliant on volunteers; focused almost entirely on candidate training and targeted campaign giving; short on supports for women officeholders, political staffers, consultants, or lobbyists; more robust for Democratic than Republican women; and rarely specified to serve women at distinct intersections of race and gender.
- In many cases, women’s political organizations are led and/or resourced by white women, creating conditions under which access to gender-targeted support depends on the priorities and decisions of white women.
Identifying Barriers to Increase Women’s Political Power
- Political actors cite the high cost of campaigns, low salaries, and the opportunity cost of public service over private sector employment as deterrents to women’s candidacy, officeholding, and staff positions. Financial challenges are exacerbated for women from historically marginalized racial/ethnic communities.
- Work/family conflicts – including difficult timelines of legislative sessions, lengthy campaigns with high time demands, and geographic distance between home and governing institutions – create challenges to candidacy, officeholding, and unelected political positions for women in both campaigns and government.
- Political parties remain an influential force in shaping structural opportunities for women in politics despite challenges to party organizations’ strength and unity. Specifically, the privileging of party insiders perpetuates a brand of gatekeeping that often works to the disadvantage of women who seek to disrupt the political status quo.
- Gender and racial biases within formal political institutions put pressure on women to adapt or assimilate to white and male-dominated spaces; result in women being held to different standards than their male counterparts; foster feelings of loneliness and/or being misunderstood among women; and contribute to gendered and/or racialized backlash to and harassment. Together, these realities create hurdles to recruitment, empowerment, and retention of women leaders.
- Outside of formal political institutions, the persistence of sexism and racism among voters, donors, and other political insiders – whether statewide or in specific localities – has slowed the pace of progress for increasing women’s political power.
Leveraging Opportunities for Building Women’s Political Power
- Political power is still disproportionately held by white men but increased participation and success of political women and actions by male allies, including those inside of and challenging party structures, create opportunities for increasing women’s political power. Other opportunities to increase political power at intersections of gender and race include changes in electorates created by demographic change and voter mobilization, elective office vacancies, and availability of appointments.
- Gender and racial reckonings in recent years have created both demands and opportunities for increasing women’s political power, especially among Democrats. Our case states offer multiple examples of the transition from activism to officeholding among women in the past decade, but significant hurdles exist to motivating and facilitating this transition without significantly constraining women’s disruptive power.
- The success of and attention to women political leaders – especially those from diverse racial/ethnic communities – acts as both impetus and inspiration for expanding women’s political representation and contributes to networks of supportive women political leaders.
Each chapter of this report lays out prescriptions for progress that can be further developed and utilized to increase women’s political power with attention to state, partisan, and racial/ethnic differences in experiences, access, opportunities, and hurdles to influence. Among them are calls to:
- Expand the definition and measures of political power in data collection, research/analysis, and practitioner interventions for increasing women’s political power.
- Be intentional about identifying and leveraging opportunities to increase the gender and racial/ethnic diversity of individuals in both elected and unelected positions of political influence, including those engaged in recruitment, hiring, and the allocation of resources and power.
- Articulate gender disparities in political representation and power as a problem and apply pressure to political leaders to address it. Be attentive to partisan differences in problem definition when crafting strategies for interventions to increase women’s political power.
- Expand and/or build support infrastructures for women in politics to better serve all women – across race/ethnicity, class, party, geography, and political role or profession – in more sustained and holistic ways. Increase financial investment to create robust and sustainable support infrastructures for all women in politics.
- Invest in support infrastructures targeted to Asian, Black, Latina, MENA, and Native women in politics and disrupt the dominance of white women among women’s political organizational leaders and donors in ways that re-allocate power and build trust between communities of women within state political ecosystems.
- Promote both structural and cultural changes within political institutions to make staffing and officeholding financially, professionally, and personally feasible. This includes providing adequate salaries, ensuring safety, reducing racism and sexism, and permitting authenticity among all actors regardless of identity.