Candidates on a debate stage

Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

Democratic Debate in Nevada, 2019.

“A few years ago I took my children on a tour of the state Capitol building. My daughter was very interested in the art — the woodwork, the decorative tiles, and the paintings. After viewing the gallery of governor portraits, she turned to me and asked, ‘Where are all the girls?’”

Bernadette Austin, associate director of the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change, studies regional issues and demographics in California, and told this story in a recent newsletter to stakeholders.

“We know that representation matters,” she wrote. “When we see people like ourselves in positions of leadership, it signals that someone who shares our history and worldview is making decisions that reflect our interests and values.”

California, as Austin’s daughter observed, has never had a woman governor, although nationwide, 44 women have served or serve as governors of U.S. states, with a handful having served as governors of U.S. territories. Nine women currently serve as governor of a state.

Persistent gender gap over most of half century

As the 2020 elections draw near, an all-time record of six women ran for president on the Democratic ticket. One candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, dropped out in late fall 2019. Some might call that number — which tripled the previous record — a victory for women’s representation in politics.

Not so fast.

While women have made great strides in entering the workforce, running companies and getting elected to Congress, there has remained a persistent gender gap in politics over the past 40 years, according to Xiaoling Shu, a UC Davis professor of sociology who studies this phenomenon.

The facts about women in political office:

  • U.S. House of Representatives: 102; or 23 percent
  • Senate: 25, or 25 percent
  • Heads of state: About 24 women at any given time
  • Women remain less than a third of all elected officials in the nation in 2019 (Source: Rutgers)

Shu’s latest research shows those attitudes have changed slightly since 2016, when the U.S. electorate nominated the first woman ever to a major political party, Hillary Clinton. She ran against Donald Trump for president and won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but ultimately lost in the Electoral College, which cost her the election.

The 2020 Presidential Election

As of February 2019, six women had formally announced their candidacy for president:

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris* (D-California)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)
  • Marianne Williamson

This is the first time in history that more than two women competed in the same major party’s presidential primary process. (Source: Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers)

*Harris dropped out of the race as this story was being written. Read UC Davis research about how Harris' support may transfer to other candidates.

“Of all (gender) attitudes analyzed,” said Shu and her co-author of a recent paper, Kelsey D. Meagher, also of UC Davis, “Americans hold the most liberal attitudes toward women in politics, with no gender gap and little educational difference on this issue.” Their findings were published in May 2019 by the American Sociological Association. Women and men agree that both sexes are equally suited emotionally for politics, according to the survey the researchers used — General Social Survey of 57,000 people — but the period between 2016-18 saw a larger increase among women than men in supporting for women in politics.

“Women’s support for women in politics jumped between 2016 and 2018 after two decades of minimal growth,” Shu said.

Public polls tell a similar story. In 2018, a Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent of Americans felt positive about more women running for office in 2018. The number of people voicing support for women in politics was higher than in previous Pew surveys. There was little consensus, however, in these surveys, as to whether more women in politics would bring change to policy and politics, and even less agreement on whether women were being elected in larger numbers for a reason, such as the #MeToo movement, President Trump, or because Hillary Clinton was almost elected.

In recent decades, women in the United States have cast ballots in elections at higher numbers than men.

In the 2016 general election, 63 percent of the citizen voting-age population of women in the U.S. turned out to vote in the 2016 general election compared to 59.3 percent of that population for men, according to Mindy Romero, a UC Davis alumna who is founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at University of Southern California. She researches political behavior and race and ethnicity in voting for the university’s Sol Price School of Public Policy in Sacramento.

A hundred years of voting

Still, 100 years after women got the right to vote by amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women make up more than half the population, yet account for less than one-third of all elected officials at city, state and national levels combined.


Women in Congress

Women in Congress chart

Women have increased their representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Senate, in recent years. Today’s House of Representatives has 126 women, which amounts to 23.6 percent of seats. In the Senate, there are 25 women, accounting for a quarter of the seats. The 116th Congress was the first to include Native American and Muslim women.
Credit: Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University


The share of candidates who are women varies by office type. Whereas women make up 42 percent of all school board candidates, they are only 27 percent of all city council candidates, according to research co-written by UC Davis assistant professor Rachel Bernhard. She is a political science researcher who focuses on gender, class and race in politics.

An even smaller share of mayoral candidates are women, coming in at 21 percent, researchers said.

“One thing we really see in this study is that women are doing great — but mostly in offices where people assume they are qualified due to their gender, like school board races.” — Rachel Bernhard

“When the stereotype is that women aren’t qualified — mostly in executive offices like mayors — they do worse than male candidates, even though they have more government experience,” Bernhard added.

There are tremendous challenges to achieving parity, echoes a nationwide study, “Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond,” from Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics.

For instance, women of color made historic gains in the 2018 election, but remain far behind Caucasian women and certainly behind Caucasian men, who dominate politics. Moreover, gains for women in the 2018 election were concentrated among Democratic women at every level of office, while the number of Republican women in office fell short of previous highs, according to Rutgers researchers.

“Achieving gender parity among candidates and officeholders will be unlikely without Republican women,” the Rutgers researchers said.

“The Republican Party’s reaction to women’s losses in 2018 and recruitment efforts in 2020 will serve as one indicator of whether the party serves as a gateway or gatekeeper to Republican women’s candidacy and officeholding.”

Women’s rights and suffrage

Despite the persisting political gap in officeholders, American women have a long history of fighting for their rights in politics. The United States was a “pioneer in the development of women’s rights, ideas and activism,” wrote Ellen Carol DuBois, UCLA professor of history emerita, in “Women’s Rights, Suffrage, and Citizenship, 1789-1920.” This is the 20th chapter in The Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History, edited by UC Davis historians Lisa Materson and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor.

“Nothing about the history of women’s rights, especially women’s political rights on a national level, reflected the automatic workings of American democracy,” DuBois continued. Instead, she wrote, it was women who were determined to have an equal place in the nation’s political affairs, who pushed long and hard, who were able to achieve anything. It took more than a half century of steady political effort.

Women played an active role in the republic being established as 13 colonies broke free of British rule. They persevered, for example, in rejecting imported fabric in favor of the cloth they made at their wheels and looms. They formed “daughters of liberty” clubs to match the “sons.” One of the first histories of the American Revolution was written by a woman, Mercy Otis Warren, of Boston. Some even fought along with soldiers, in addition to nursing, cooking, washing, and raising money for them. But, DuBois documented, they went unrecognized as being part of the polity.

Abigail Adams in 1776 famously admonished her husband, in her letters, to “remember the ladies,” in the “new code of laws” governing the United States.

She pointed out to John Adams and other members of the Continental Congress as they prepared to declare independence from Great Britain that the harsh English laws governing marriage could make husbands “tyrants” over their economically dependent wives. Yet those laws stood.

A Progressive turn, and California

Life magazine voting cover
Women have increased their representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the Senate, in recent years. Today’s House of Representatives has 126 women, which amounts to 23.6 percent of seats. In the Senate, there are 25 women, accounting for a quarter of the seats. The 116th Congress was the first to include Native American and Muslim women.
Courtesy, Special Collections, UC Davis Library

By 1912, Progressives formed a third political party, taking some of those in the Republican party and women supporters with them. But many black women remained loyal to the party of Lincoln. As with most third parties in history, much of its growth split the votes, both literally, with the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and figuratively, through party loyalties to women’s suffrage and other issues.

“In California, by contrast, a 1911 referendum stimulated by the rise of Progressivism narrowly succeeded in enfranchising the state’s one million women,” wrote DuBois. A network of women activists formed clubs, unions and suffrage societies and organized what would now be seen as a typical campaign using pictures, telephones and modern graphic design to promote “votes for women” rather than the old-fashioned “suffrage.” They printed leaflets in Spanish for Latino voters and supported labor reforms.

By 1915, 10 states, all west of the Mississippi, had revised their constitutions to enfranchise women. It was clear, wrote DuBois, that the only way to get all women the vote was through an amendment to the federal Constitution.

By 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote only applied to the states, so Puerto Rican women and Filipinas would organize separately, which didn’t succeed fully until more than a decade later.

The continuing gender gap in voting

On the whole, women lean significantly more Democratic than men, often by 10 percentage points, said Romero. In California, that gap is even wider. Among women, notably, married women lean slightly more Republican than single women.

In surveys, women consistently cite the economy, health care and education as crucial issues that determine how they vote — rating them more highly than men do. As a group, women often find themselves more affected by economic declines. They vote issues that affect their economic vulnerability and are more likely to prefer an active government that produces a stronger social safety net — a key difference in viewpoint separating Republican and Democratic party platforms, Romero said.

“Race is a key contributor to the huge gender gap in our diverse state,” Romero said.

“Female voters of color, led by California’s significant Latina population, are driving the gender difference in voting. And both California’s already large proportions of single women and women of color are on the rise.” — Mindy Romero

Women and the black vote

Young black woman at a voting booth
A black woman votes in a recent election. Black women have played an integral role as active voters in the United States.
Credit: UC Davis/Getty Images

Despite the large gap that remains for women of color in politics, black women also had an important part of grassroots politics even before they had the right to vote, and it is this strong tradition dating back to Reconstruction that helped pave the way to propel Barack Obama into the presidency. These are the findings of UC Davis historian Lisa Materson, author of the 2009 book For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932.

Materson, associate professor of history, illustrates in her book that as African American women migrated beyond the reach of southern white supremacists, they became active voters, canvassers, suffragists, campaigners and lobbyists. They mobilized, gaining a voice in national party politics and electing representatives who would push for the enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments in the South. When black men got the right to vote in 1870, black women, though disfranchised, helped them to remain informed and vote for causes important to their communities.

Obama’s national victories, she wrote in a blog as he entered his second term as president, emerged out of the specific historical context of Chicago politics and black women’s political activism.

“That the nation’s first African American president holds deep political ties to Chicago is no coincidence because Chicago has long been a key historical site of black political power in the U.S.” — Lisa Materson

The gender difference in voter turnout continues today, and is greater for blacks than the general population or whites, noted Romero, of USC. African American women have had much higher turnout than their male counterparts in every election during the past two decades. In 2016, Romero said, African American women voter turnout was 9 percent higher than for African American men. This marked the largest difference in black voter turnout since 1996.

Historically, achieving the vote came in stages

Women voting in the early 20th century
The first women vote in a general election in California.
Courtesy California State Library

“Women in Illinois acquired voting rights in three stages: suffrage for school officials in 1891, expanded suffrage for many municipal and federal offices in 1913, and the full franchise in 1920,” wrote Materson in the introduction to her book. It was similar in other states, with women getting pieces of voting rights a little at a time before the enactment of the 19th Amendment.

Between 1915 and 1928, black voters in Chicago helped to put more black men into office than any other American city, including a black Congressman, Oscar DePriest, said Materson. His 1928 victory made him the first black American to serve in Congress since 1901. Black men continued to win in Chicago, and Obama was no exception. He lost one election, but won a seat in the U.S. Senate that made him the nation’s fifth black senator, giving him national recognition and eventually, the presidency.

Women candidates and the ‘double bind’

Scholars are looking at how women candidates are viewed differently than men, particularly in media coverage. Erin C. Cassese, associate professor of political science at University of Delaware, is among many researchers looking at the “double bind” — or the need for candidates to embody a particular mix of both masculine and feminine traits in order to appear palatable to American voters. “The double bind was a challenge for Hillary Clinton’s candidacies in 2008 and 2016, and we will evaluate how it manifests in 2020,” she said in an analysis published by Rutgers.

At this writing, Elizabeth Warren was a frontrunner among Democratic challengers to President Trump. Christine Jahnke, a nationally recognized speech coach and author based in Washington, D.C., and founder of Positive Communications, said Warren has a style that differs from her male counterparts in the election.

“Warren is continuously redefining what leadership looks and sounds like. It’s exciting how she energized huge crowds with policy solutions, not bombastic rhetoric,” Jahnke wrote in the Rutgers analysis.

“Warren calls out corruption while speaking empathetically for those who’ve lost the most. And voters are listening.”

Amber Boydstun, associate professor of political science at UC Davis and a specialist on elections and media said it remains to be seen if Warren will continue to energize the electorate. "We'll need to wait and see whether voters’ enthusiasm for Warren is enough to break through the double-bind barrier."