The era of women in Congress began on April 2, 1917, when Montana’s Jeannette Rankin was sworn in as a member of the United States House of Representatives. On May 21, 1919, Representative James Robert Mann of Illinois called up the first measure of the 66th Congress: HJR 1, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which was a proposed amendment to the Constitution extending voting rights to women. In August 1920, three months before the 1920 elections, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was ratified and added to the Constitution. That very fall, millions of women were able to vote for the first time. Since 1917, a total of 424 women have served as U.S. representatives, delegates, resident commissioners, or senators. As we observe Women’s History Month this March, we are highlighting and reflecting on the women who have held office at the federal and state level. We also acknowledge that the fight for equal representation continues as women continue to make strides to achieve parity with men in the political sphere.
Women in the United States House of Representatives (1990–2023)
While women have served in the House prior to the 1990s, it would be irresponsible to discuss this topic without mentioning 1992, which was called “The Year of the Woman.” This year saw a large increase in the amount of women running and winning office across the country. In 1992, The Year of the Woman was in full swing when four new female senators and 24 new congresswomen were elected to office. Since then the House of Representatives has consistently made history by electing women into leadership positions and breaking records on the amount of women serving in the house. Thirty-six women entered Congress for the first time between 1935 and 1954. An example of the history-making events in the House of Representatives was the election of the first woman Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on January 4, 2007. Since 1992, there has been a consistent and rapid growth of women serving in the House of Representatives. The percentage of women serving in the House reached its peak in the 118th Congress with a record 128 women serving in the newly elected House, accounting for 29% of the chamber’s total women, making up more than a quarter of all members in the House.
Women in the United States Senate (1990–2023)
In 1991, the Senate only included two women members, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. They made up only two percent of women serving in the Senate, which was drastically small compared to the number of women serving in the House at the time. However, the trend of few women in the Senate began to change in the wake of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings.
In response to the hearings, Washington State Senator Patty Murray decided to run for the U.S. Senate, and while she set out to raise the necessary funds, two other women in California set out to begin work on their own Senate campaigns as well. As a result, in the 1992 elections for the first time in American history, California became the first state in the nation to elect two women in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Washington State would also go on to make history by electing Patty Murray, making her the first woman to represent the state in the Senate. Further to the east, the state of Illinois would also make history by electing Carol Moseley Braun, the first female senator from Illinois and the first African American woman to serve in the Senate. Never before in history had four women been elected to the Senate in a single election year which continued to push the national movement of women being elected to office.
The national movement of women being elected into the Senate did not end with them. According to data from the Pew Research Center, since 1992 there has been a continued increase in women being elected to the Senate each election cycle. There was little growth in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, until the 2016 election when we started to see more women not just running for the Senate but also getting elected. The year 2021 saw the amount of women serving in the Senate reach its peak with a record number of 26% of women serving, the highest number to date. During this time, Kamala Harris was the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected vice president of the United States, as was the case with other offices she held such as district attorney of San Francisco, California attorney general, and United States senator. The amount of women currently serving in the Senate slightly declined with only 25% of women serving at this time.
Lastly, history was made in the current legislative session with the ascension of Patty Murray to the position of president pro tempore of the Senate. She is now third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Women in State Legislatures (1990–2023)
Women have been serving in state legislatures since 1894 when three — Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly, and Frances Klock — were elected to the Colorado State House of Representatives. Since then, women have steadily increased their numbers in state legislatures, and by 1959 only one — Hawaii — had not yet elected a woman to a state House. Alabama was the last state to elect a woman to a state senate in 1983.
In recent decades, however, women still haven’t reached parity with men in state legislatures, holding as many as 24% of seats in 2012 and roughly 31% a decade later (see Figure 3). According to Vox.com, much of this increase can be attributed to the 2016 elections, with political organizations such as Emily’s List reporting that up to 42,000 women reached out about running in the aftermath of the election. Since then, the percentage of women office-holders has increased by roughly a percentage point per year.
Additionally, women have taken power in state legislatures in other ways, with 8 states that currently have a woman serving as speaker of the lower chamber (such as Alaska, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota) and 20 states with a woman serving as either president or majority leader of the state senate (such as California and Virginia). In Colorado and Nevada, women hold a majority of seats in the legislature, at 50% and 60.3% respectively.
Women Governors (1990–2023)
Compared with state legislatures, it took longer for women to win election to the chief executive position in a state. The first two women to win a gubernatorial election were both in 1925, in Texas (Miriam Ferguson) and Wyoming (Nellie Taylor Ross), both of whom were elected to succeed their husbands. The first woman to win the governorship in her own right, unrelated to her husband, was Ella Grasso in Connecticut in 1974.
Since then, 32 states have had at least one woman to serve as a governor (elected or unelected) with Arizona holding the record of five women to serve as governor (the fifth, Katie Hobbs, is the incumbent). In 2010, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico were the first women of color to win a gubernatorial election. In 2022, Oregon and Massachusetts both elected the nation’s first openly lesbian governors in Tina Kotek and Maura Healey. Governor Kotek is also the first LGBTQ-identifying governor to succeed another, in this case coming after Kate Brown, who was the first openly bisexual woman to be elected governor. As of writing, no Black woman has been elected as governor of a state, but many Black women have been the nominees of a major party for governor, such as Deidre DeJear of Iowa and Stacey Abrams of Georgia.
Currently, a record twelve women serve as governor of a state, breaking the previous record of nine governors in 2009. Across 20 states, a record 25 women were major party nominees for governor, up from the previous record of 16 in 2018. Three — Arkansas, Massachusetts, and New York — elected their first women governors, with both Arkansas and Massachusetts electing the first governor/lieutenant governor tickets.
While the era of women in politics started in the early 1900s, we acknowledge that the presence of women in politics is continuing to climb as much as a percentage point each year, and this trend continues as we are starting the 118th legislative session. We at Vote Smart are here to provide insight and understanding into our political realm and the candidates/officials who occupy and participate in political discourse and provide issue position and general information for all candidates and officials regardless of sex and/or gender. Our great nation is founded upon an expansive and simple idea that all people are created equal. Leading the efforts in the 2023 legislative year is the most diverse group of women at the highest levels of government in history, and we can finally say women are seated at every table where decisions are being made. This month, let us celebrate all of the contributions of women in history and envision a future where every woman and girl knows that her possibilities are limitless.
Kopel, J. (2008, August 8). Colorado women first to reach the statehouse. Colorado women first to reach statehouse | Colorado Statesman. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://web.archive.org/web/20130325051401/http://coloradostatesman.com/kopel/colorado-women-first-reach-statehouse
Pew Research Center. (2022, December 13). The data on women leaders. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/fact-sheet/the-data-on-women-leaders/
Povich, E. S. (2021, February 24). Women gain record power in State legislatures. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/02/24/women-gain-record-power-in-state-legislatures
Resource first women to serve in state and territorial legislatures. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019, March 6). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.ncsl.org/womens-legislative-network/first-women-to-serve-in-state-and-territorial-legislatures
Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, February 19). Year of the woman. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_of_the_Woman#:~:text=The%20Year%20of%20the%20Woman,90%20of%20whom%20were%20Democrats.
Women in elective office 2023. Center for American Women and Politics. (n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://cawp.rutgers.edu/facts/current-numbers/women-elective-office-2023
"Year of the woman". U.S. Senate: "Year of the Woman". (2022, February 8). Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/year_of_the_woman.htm
Zhou, L. (2018, November 6). 12 charts that explain the record-breaking year women have had in politics. Vox. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/2018/11/6/18019234/women-record-breaking-midterms
This research was compiled by Nick Israel and Noah Andrew.
Nick Israel (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since January 2022 and researched candidate issue positions before becoming Director of Elections Research last December. Prior to working at the organization, he studied political science and history at the University of Washington and American government at Georgetown University. In his free time, he likes to read political history.
Noah Andrew is the Assistant National Director at Vote Smart who started in May 2021 after completing his Master’s Degree in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Northern Iowa. As the Assistant National Director, Noah is responsible for the oversight, development, and delivery of all of Vote Smart’s research data.