Arizona’s state legislature now has a higher proportion of female members than any other state, and the number of women in elected office may be poised to skyrocket next year.
“There’s a surge of interest among women in running for office right now,” said Katie Ziegler, who runs the Women’s Legislative Network at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “People talk about making a really concerted effort to recruit women.”
More than 18,000 women have contacted EMILY’s List about running for office next year, said Alexandra De Luca, the group’s spokeswoman. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee counts 84 female candidates running for 80 Republican-held districts that the committee is targeting.
Arizona’s legislature is now 40 percent female, leapfrogging Nevada’s 39.7 percent to become the most female-heavy legislature in America.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors last month chose Geraldine Peten, a career educator, to fill a vacant seat in the state House of Representatives, tipping the legislature into first place on the list.
Peten will join 35 other women serving in the state House and Senate.
Six other states – Vermont, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, Maine and Oregon – have legislatures in which more than a third of the members are women.
Although Arizona has a conservative reputation, the state has a long history of electing women to office. Four of the state’s last six governors have been women, dating back to 1988.
It was also one of the first states to send a woman to Congress, when Isabella Selmes Greenway won office in 1932.
“There’s a lot of women in politics in Arizona. We have a cowboy mentality here, if you want to get involved and be active and engaged in your community, you can,” said state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), chairwoman of the state House Elections Committee. “We don’t have that many barriers to entry, so to speak.”
Western states have a long history of electing women to legislative office. The first women to serve in a state legislature were elected in Colorado and Wyoming, where women won the right to vote long before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Today, 11 women hold the top posts in their state Senates, including in Arizona, Hawaii, New Mexico and Oregon. Six women are speakers of state Houses, in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.
But after a rapid increase in the number of female officeholders during the 1990s, growth has stagnated. In 1999, just over 22 percent of the nation’s 7,300 state legislative seats were held by women. Now, about a quarter are held by women.
“The trend has been, sadly, stagnation. We have seen a real flatlining in the number of women who serve in state legislatures,” said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Wyoming has the fewest female legislators today. Just three of the state’s 30 senators are women, and seven of 60 state representatives are women. Fewer than 15 percent of legislative seats are held by women in Oklahoma, West Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi.
Women have never held a majority of seats in a state legislature. Only once – in the New Hampshire state Senate, for a brief two-year window last decade – have women controlled a majority of seats in a legislative chamber.
Women first claimed 10 percent of the nation’s state legislative seats after the 1978 elections. They first surpassed 20 percent of total seats in the 1992 elections.
Two more women captured legislative seats on Tuesday, when Florida voters picked Annette Taddeo to fill an open state Senate seat in the Miami area and Kari Lerner won a state House seat in New Hampshire. Both are Democrats.
And voters in Washington will pick between two women running for a crucial open state Senate seat in the Seattle suburbs in November.
Top party officials on both sides have organized recruitment drives and mentorship programs to attract new female candidates in recent years.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has worked with groups like EMILY’s List and Emerge America, two groups explicitly aimed at getting women to run for office. The Republican State Leadership Committee has a program called Right Women, Right Now that backs conservative candidates.
Democrats have had more success in electing women to state legislative seats. Of the 1,840 women who hold seats today, 60 percent – 1,114 – are Democrats. Just 703 are Republicans, and the rest are independents or third-party representatives.
Political science research has found that women who run for office win at about the same rate as male candidates. The difference, Walsh said, is that men are far more likely to run for office in the first place.
Walsh said women are far more likely than men to have participated in training programs, an indication that those women who do run for office are more likely to have been recruited to run in the first place. Men are more likely to jump into races on their own, without being asked.