Path to Gender Parity

A deeper look reveals stark differences in the rate at which different political parties and regions of the country elect women. The number of elected women serving in the House of Representatives has increased just 9% in the last 25 years while women’s representation in the Senate has increased by 13 percent. Women’s representation in state legislatures has grown by only 4% over that same time period and the representation of women as mayors and on city councils is under 20%.

The voices of women of color and younger women are not being heard in the corridors of power either. We will not reach parity for women across the political, racial, age, or geographic spectrum in our lifetimes at the current rate of change.

Research confirms that structural reforms - which complement current strategies - are one of the main reasons that 95 nations are electing more women than the U.S.

Title IX leveled the playing field for girls and women in education & athletics while the Voting Rights Act addressed systems that disadvantaged people of color. Republicans led the way nearly 100 years ago to enact gender quotas for their state and national party committees as well as convention delegates from many states, with the Democrats following suit. The common thread is that we addressed inequality by changing the rules and laws - not by expecting individuals to change.

We need to improve recruitment processes so that more women run, adopt fair voting systems so that more women win, and embrace legislative practices so that more women can serve and lead.

Click on a topic to begin.

Setting targets to level the playing field for women candidates

Recruiting women to run for office is one of the central challenges to winning gender parity in the United States.  Representation2020 challenges political parties, PACS, and donors to commit to intentional actions to ensure that more women are recruited to run. These voluntary targets mimic the quotas that are used in over 100 nations to fuel the election of women candidates.

What Can Political Parties Do?

Political parties in many states and localities play a significant role in deciding who runs for office - they must be challenged to be deliberate about the number of women candidates they recruit.

Local, state, and national political parties should establish Gender Parity Task Forces to assess the status of women’s representation and determine targets for the recruitment of women candidates. Ideally, local and state parties that meet their targets should receive Gender Parity Grants financed by donations from those who care about increasing the number of women elected to office. Pressure from party members may also work to make parties recruit more women candidates and to hold them accountable for their action - or lack of action as the case may be.

An annual report should be prepared by the local or state party on the status of women’s representation in its own leadership, in the number of female candidates, nominees, and general election winners in the most recent election, and its plans to recruit women for upcoming elections.

What Can PACs Do?

Political Action Committees (PACs) play decisive roles in recruiting, endorsing and funding candidates - they must be challenged to be intentional in the number of women candidates they recruit, support, and fund.

Members of PACs and endorsing groups, especially those with member-driven priorities, from the Sierra Club to organized labor, the faith community and the Chamber of Commerce, should set targets for intentional action in endorsements and political giving. While women-oriented PACs like EMILY’s List, Susan B Anthony List, and The WISH List already are committed to supporting female candidates, other PACs should intentionally and deliberately commit to contributing a certain share of their funds to female candidates. 

PACs should be encouraged to discuss and propose targets for their giving for all levels of elected office. With public attention, parity funding of male and female candidates may develop into a comparative advantage for PACs, which operate in a competitive environment and are always on the lookout for new ways to appeal to donors.

What Can Donors Do?

Individual donor contributions are crucial to the success of women candidates for every level of office - and often are the first test of a candidate’s viability - they must also be challenged to set targets for the number of women candidates they support or the proportion of their total donations that go to women candidates. Donors may choose to set their own targets for support of women candidates or work in concert with others to make their pledge public. Influential donor pledges to support women candidates will help to build public pressure for increased support of women candidates.  

Representation2020 advocates for the use of fair representation voting systems to elect more women

The type of electoral system used in counties, cities, and states has a clear impact on women's electoral success. Multi-winner districts (where more than one person represents a community) are more likely to elect women candidates. Ranked choice voting - a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice - elects more women as well.

Fair representation votingcombines multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting to create openings for women, people of color, and all parties in areas that are now one-party strongholds. It is in use today across the country and can be used at the local, state, and federal level without amending the U.S. Constitution.

Women are more likely to win in these fair representation voting systems because political parties are more likely to recruit women to run, voters are more likely to vote for women candidates when electing multiple representatives, fewer incumbents win re-election, campaigns are more civil, and candidates spend less money to get elected - focusing instead on grassroots outreach.

The ten states that use multi-winner districts for their state legislative elections rank among the highest in the country for women’s representation.

infogram_0_shayna_percentage_of_citizens_with_at_least_one_female_representative_by_type_of_districtShayna: Percentage of Citizens with at least One female Representative by Type of District//

When combined with intentional actions that increase the recruitment of female candidates, fair representation voting systems will increase the representation of women in elected office.


Representation2020’s research shows that among the largest 100 cities in the United States the average percentage of women on city councils with only at-large seats is 41% while the average percentage of women on city councils with only single member district seats is 28%.


infogram_0_9c0550f9-0e2f-4f2d-819c-4550518bbc25Rep2020 At-large vs. Single Winner Women's Representation//


Representation2020 calls on city, state and national legislators to reform their internal practices and culture so that women legislators can serve and lead effectively. Erratic work schedules, low pay rates, geographic distance, and unfair leadership selection processes make serving a challenge for many women - especially those caring for children and managing households.

To make the governmental workplace one in which more women office holders can thrive, legislative bodies should enact the following internal process reforms:

  • provide affordable on-site childcare
  • allow for telecommuting and virtual voting for elected officials
  • create family-friendly schedules for committee meetings and floor proceedings
  • review the ways in which committee leadership is selected

Representation2020 calls on gatekeepers at the city, state, and federal level to demonstrate a commitment to gender parity by appointing women to key leadership positions - like committee chairs - when they become available.

Although global representation of women is steadily increasing, cultural, political, and systemic barriers to women in elected office remain. More needs to be done to reach full gender parity, so that women can run, win, serve, and lead effectively.

Three of the most powerful mechanisms for change around the world are:

  • Recruitment targets: Seventy one of the nations that rank above the United States in women’s representation have some type of quota system - to learn more about these voluntary, legislated, or mandated quotas visit the Quota Project and Representation20/20's quota spreadsheet that is based on data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Quota Project. This strategy is widely credited with having the clearest impact on the number of women elected.

  • Fair representation voting: The vast majority of countries that rank above the United States, use multi-winner districts with some form of proportional representation or ranked choice voting system to elect legislators. To learn more about how the countries that rank above the United States in women’s representation vote visit Representation20/20's voting system spreadsheet.

  • Improved Legislative Practices: Many countries have instituted legislative practices like child care, telecommuting, and merit-based committee leadership selection so that women of all ages can balance the opportunities for civic service with child-rearing and other family responsibilities.

infogram_0_4225ab86-0299-43aa-9233-0214b42fccd1Rep2020: Women's representation around the world: US falls farther behind//

Understanding the history of women’s representation helps to inform our work for gender parity.



Women's Advocacy in the White House

Abigail Adams was an outspoken women's advocate and the country's second First Lady. Adams played a double role, acting as John Adams' wife and political adviser; Adams supported her husband in his career but never failed to express her convictions that women should have the same rights as men. Many of her ideas were ahead of her time: she opposed slavery, stressed the importance of education regardless of gender and believed it to be the responsibility of the rich to support the poor. Her appeals for gender equality are seen as some of the first demands for women’s equal rights.



The First Women's Convention

The Seneca Falls Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Elizabeth C. Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the meeting, which was the first women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life. Convinced that women had to help themselves and take responsibility for improving their situation, they prepared the Declaration of Sentiments, which included twelve resolutions. The participants passed eleven resolutions, failing to pass a resolution for women’s suffrage. Decades later, the Declaration of Sentiments was used as a foundational document for the women’s suffrage movement.



First Woman to Run for President

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, a women’s rights and suffrage activist, became the first woman to run for president. She was the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Woodhull, a resident of New York, was unable to vote for herself on Election Day, as at that time the state restricted the franchise to men. However, as she had been jailed a few days prior to Election Day for a story she had published in her newspaper Woodhull & Chaflin’s Weekly, her inability to vote due to her gender was of little consequence.



First Women State Legislator

The State of Colorado pioneered women’s participation in politics. Though the first attempts to establish women’s suffrage failed in 1877, Colorado became the second state to give women the right to vote in 1893. Clara Cressingham, Frances Klock and Carrie C. Holly of Colorado were the first women elected to a state legislature, the Colorado House of Representatives. These women focused on social welfare issues and pushed reforms for child labor laws, relief subsidies and the 8-hour work day.



First Congresswoman

In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She was a Republican from Montana, who served from 1917-1919, and again from 1941-1943. Rankin was a supporter of women's suffrage who lobbied Congress for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As a progressive congresswoman, Rankin advocated a constitutional women's suffrage amendment and focused on social welfare issues.



Women Achieve the Right to Vote

On August 26, 1920, the women's suffrage movement came to a head with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in all 50 states. Some of the movement's major drivers included the National Women's Party, which sought a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated women's suffrage at the national and state levels, respectively, and eventually merged. Women's participation in the First World War gave further impetus to the cause.



First Woman Senator

On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton was sworn in as a Senator from Georgia. The 87-year-old Felton was appointed in a symbolic gesture to fill a vacancy, after the death of Senator Thomas E. Watson. She only served one day in the Senate.




First Woman Governor

In 1924, women’s involvement in American politics took a leap forward when Wyoming and Texas elected female governors. Nellie Tayloe Ross and Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, both Democrats, succeeded their husbands in office. Ross became the governor of Wyoming in a special election, after her husband died. She had not been involved in politics before but wanted to continue her husband’s work. Miriam Ferguson succeeded her husband James Ferguson after he was impeached. Much of her work as governor was influenced by her husband.



First Elected Woman Senator

In 1931, Hattie Wyatt Caraway was the first woman to serve as a U.S. Senator for more than a day. She was appointed after the death of her husband Thaddeus H. Caraway, an Arkansas Senator. Though she made few public appearances during her husband’s term, Caraway stayed involved in politics behind the scenes. After finishing her husband's term, Caraway was re-elected and served in the Senate until 1945. Her major policy focuses were farm relief and flood control. She was also wary of America's involvement in World War II and the influence of lobbyists.



First Woman Cabinet Member

Francis Perkins was a well-educated and engaging woman, who graduated from Columbia University and Wharton College with a focus on economics and sociology. She worked as a factory inspector and on the Factory Investigation Commission in New York City. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as Commissioner of Labor when he was Governor of New York. Impressed by her work, Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor in 1932. She was the first female cabinet member, serving 12 years during the Great Depression. Serving in what was a particularly difficult position during that time period, Perkins labored to create back-to-work programs for the struggling workforce.



First Woman Elected to Both the House and the Senate

Margaret Chase Smith’s political career started in 1940 when she succeeded her husband as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine. She served four terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1948, where she stayed for another 24 years. Smith engaged in foreign policy and military affairs, while serving as a member of the Armed Services Committee. She was the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate.



First Woman Running for President at a Major Party Convention

Senator Margaret Chase Smith ran for president in 1964. Though Smith was not the first woman to run for president, she was the first to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major political party's convention. Smith was on the ballot in several states across the country, including Illinois, where she received 25% of the vote. She eventually lost the nomination to Senator Barry Goldwater.



First Congresswoman of Color

In 1964, Patsy Mink became the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She went on to serve for a total of twelve terms, representing Hawaii’s initial at-large district and then Hawaii’s second district until her death in 2002. Mink is most well known for being one of the principle authors of Title IX, as well as the first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act and the Women's Educational Equity Act. Mink also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs after her first three terms in Congress.



First African American Congresswoman

Shirley Chisholm's career began in education. After graduating from Brooklyn College and Columbia University, Chisholm worked as a teacher. Soon she was the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center and later an educational consultant to the Bureau of Child Welfare in New York. She successfully ran for Congress in 1969, becoming the first black congresswoman, and served as a Democratic representative for New York for seven terms. Her career in Congress was dedicated to education, and she served in the Education and Labor Committee. Chisholm was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.



Women of Color Running for President

"Unbought and Unbossed" was Shirley Chisholm’s slogan when she campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. She was the first woman seeking the Democratic nomination and also the first African American who tried to become the presidential candidate for a major party. She participated in 12 primaries and went all the way to the Democratic National Convention where she won 152 votes, but lost to George McGovern. Chisholm died in 2005, and the New York Times remembered her as an “outspoken politician who shattered racial and gender barriers as she became a national symbol of liberal politics.”



First Woman Supreme Court Justice

In 1981, President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to replace Potter Stewart as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Although her nomination was originally opposed by pro-life and religious groups, who worried she should not rule in favor of overturning Roe vs. Wade (1973), she was eventually confirmed by a 99-0 vote in the Senate. While she was a conservative jurist, siding with the conservative justices in the majority of cases before her, many of her decisions were praised for being both narrow and moderate. She retired in 2006.



First Woman Vice Presidential Nominee

In 1984, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman vice presidential nominee of a major party. Her running mate was Walter F. Mondale, who ran against incumbent Ronald Reagan. Geraldine Ferraro was born in Newburgh, NY in 1935. She graduated with a degree in English from Marymount College and received a law degree from Fordham Law School in 1960. Before being elected to Congress, Ferraro worked for the Queens County Women’s Bar Association and was a Queen’s criminal prosecutor. She served three terms in Congress.



First Latina Congresswoman

In 1988, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina and first Cuban-American to be elected to Congress. She is currently the most senior Republican woman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before becoming involved in politics, Ros-Lehtinen was a teacher, having graduated with a B.A. in education and M.A. in educational leadership from Florida International University, followed by a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Miami University. In Congress, Ros-Lehtinen served a term as the chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.



The Year of the Woman

The 1992 election was significant for women's representation in America. Several factors came together to help women's representation, including the Anita Hill scandal and the subsequent congressional hearing, which illustrated the under-representation of women in Congress.The election bolstered the percentage of women in the national legislature; for the first time, women held more than 10 percent of congressional seats. A record 24 women were elected to the House of Representatives and the number of female senators tripled. The 1992 election sent more women to Congress than the previous five national elections combined.



First Woman of Color in the Senate

Carol Moseley-Braun was the first African American woman elected to the Senate, the first female Senator from Illinois and the first African-American Democratic senator. In 1991, Moseley-Braun challenged incumbent Alan Dixon in the state's Democratic primary, winning the nomination with the help of donations from Democrats and women from all over the country. Though she lost her re-election bid in 1998, Moseley-Braun continued a career in politics as President Clinton's ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa, the Cook Islands, and Antarctica.



First Woman Speaker of the House

In 2007, Nancy Pelosi was elected America's first female speaker of the House of Representatives. Though Pelosi came from a political family, she did not run for office until 1987, winning a special election in California's 8th District, which includes San Francisco. Pelosi is a strong supporter of health research, health care and housing programs; she also advocates human rights and environment protection. In 2002, Pelosi was chosen as the Democratic Leader of the House. She became the Speaker of the House in 2008 when the Democrats took control of Congress. Currently, she is again the House Minority Leader.



"18 Million Cracks in the Highest, Hardest Glass Ceiling"

In 2008, Hillary Clinton narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for president to Barack Obama, winning more state primaries and delegates than any other female candidate before her. The former First Lady of Arkansas and the United States served in the U.S. Senate for New York from 2000 to 2009. After President Obama was elected, Clinton served as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013.



First Republican Woman Vice Presidential Nominee

Sarah Palin became the first Republican woman vice presidential nominee in 2008. At the time of her nomination, she was serving as Alaska’s first female governor and had previously served as Mayor of Wasilla. Since her vice presidential bid, she has endorsed other Republican women candidates for various levels of office. Although she was considered a potential candidate in the 2012 presidential elections, she declined to run.



First Latina Governor

Susana Martinez was elected Governor of New Mexico in 2010. She is the first Latina woman to serve as governor of an American state (Sila Calerdón had already served as Governor of Puerto Rico from 2001 to 2005). Prior to her election as governor, Martinez served as District Attorney from 1997 to 2011. Martinez's approval rating has not dropped below 60% since taking office.



First Asian American Woman Governor

Nikki Haley was elected as the first woman Governor of South Carolina in 2010. She is the first Asian American and Indian American woman to serve as governor, and is also, at the age of 41, the youngest current governor in the nation. Prior to her governorship, Haley was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004 after defeating Larry Koon, who was then the longest-serving member of the South Carolina House, in the Republican primary.



First Openly Gay Senator

In 2012, Tammy Baldwin became the first women to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. She is also the first and only openly gay U.S. Senator. Prior to her election to the Senate, Baldwin had served in the U.S. House since 1999. She has been a staunch advocate for progressive policies during her 14 year tenure in Congress.




First African American Republican member of Congress

In 2014, Mia Love became the first African American Republican woman (and the first Haitian-American) to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives when she defeated Doug Owens by 4,000. Love represents Utah’s 4 congressional district and was elected mayor of Saratoga Springs, UT and served on the city council prior to her election to Congress.




First Woman Candidate from a Major Party

In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for President of the United States. Prior to her nomination Clinton served as the 67th U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, a U.S. Senator from New York from 2001 to 2009, First Lady of the U.S. from 1993 to 2001, First Lady of Arkansas, and practiced law after her graduation from Yale Law School in 1973.

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