Women in Politics

By Janet K. Boles

Between the time when I taught the first course on women and politics offered at the University of Texas (spring 1975), and my retirement as a professor of political science at Marquette University (spring 2009), the number of women in elected office increased exponentially and women and politics research has emerged as a cutting-edge topic within the profession. When I was choosing a dissertation topic in 1973, my advisor, Robert L. Lineberry, suggested that I write every scholar engaged in gender politics research so as to preempt another study of Equal Rights Amendment ratification. This was very doable at the time. In spring 1978, after I had returned to UT as a visiting professor, student interest in the topic was high; my lower-division course on women and politics enrolled 250 students (with another 250 on the waiting list). And today the American Political Science Associa- tion Section on Women and Politics Research has 630 members, making it the eighth-largest section (of 38) in the discipline.

The number of female elected officials has similarly increased. The 94th Congress (1975-77) had no women in the Senate and only 19 (4%) in the House. Currently women hold 17% of Senate and 16.8% of House seats. There has been equally dramatic growth in the number of female state legislators. Today 24.4% of state legislators are women, compared to 8.1% in 1975. Women are also assuming key leadership positions. Not only is Nancy Pelosi the House Speaker, but women also chair three standing committees in each house. Likewise, 15.1% of state legislative leaders are women, and women chair 23.4% of the standing committees. Women are also far more likely to be appointed by governors and presidents. For example, when Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, only four federal judges were women and only eight women had ever served on the federal bench. In 2008 around 25% of district court judges were women, as were 27% of federal appeals court judges. Two women of course now sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over time female elected officials and gender politics scholars have developed a symbiotic relationship. As rigorous research and good polling data have shown that many presumed barriers to women’s candidacy (e.g., fundraising, voter bias) are invalid, more women have been emboldened to run for office. And, as the number of women in politics rises, likewise does the legitimacy of women and politics research. In that vein, I was gratified this past year that my department, although still defining my position as one of urban politics, was very interested in also finding someone to teach courses on women and politics. As one colleague put it, “no department worth its salt lacks a gender politics specialist.”

NOTE: Statistics on women in Congress and state legislatures are available at www.cawp.rutgers.edu. Those on women on the federal courts are drawn from an essay posted by Sally Kenney on www.womensenews.org.

Janet K. Boles received her Ph.D. in government in 1976. She is professor emerita, Marquette University, and has published extensively on the feminist movement, women in American politics, and gender policy. Among other publications, she is the author of The Politics of the Equal Rights Amendment and co-author of The A to Z of Feminism.