Elizabeth Warren’s exit from the Democratic presidential primary ended any possibility for a woman to win the presidency this November. But the biggest setback from the primary thus far has been to our national discourse around women in politics. Anxious speculation over whether a woman nominee can defeat Trump this November has remained a constant media drumbeat throughout the campaign and likely factored into many women candidates’ early exits from the race and poor showings in the first spate of primary states.
It is troubling to see the increased recognition of gender and racial bias in politics—itself a potential sign of progress—weaponized against candidates fighting to overcome it. But equally problematic are the conversations about gender, race, and reflective democracy that electability pushes aside. Since 2018, women have made significant gains in political representation, and based on 2020 campaign filings, their political enthusiasm shows no signs of abating. We know women are getting elected at rates equal to or higher than men, so instead of “can women win?” (spoiler alert: They can and do), we should be asking, “What’s changing, and what’s not?” to challenge the archaic concept of “electability.”
State legislatures, in particular, are emerging as the sites of interesting political shifts. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the overall rate of women’s representation in state legislatures is higher than in Congress (29.0 percent versus 23.7 percent, respectively). But women’s representation also varies widely by state, from 13.4 percent in West Virginia to 52 percent in Nevada. State legislatures provide a compelling window through which to examine how representation is becoming more inclusive (or not) and how increasing diversity affects political and policy outcomes.
A recent analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), where I’m a fellow-in-residence, and Quorum found that women’s representation was positively associated with legislative productivity. Not only did women state legislators introduce more bills and see more of their bills enacted than their male counterparts during the past two legislative sessions, but all legislators serving in chambers with greater levels of women’s representation (that is, 30 percent and above) introduced and passed more bills than those serving in legislatures with fewer women.
Our analysis further found that it was Democratic women—those responsible for women’s significant electoral gains in 2018—who were driving gender-related differences. In addition to their greater overall productivity, Democratic women state legislators were also more likely to introduce and successfully enact bills on paid family leave, child care, sexual harassment, and minimum wage than any other group of state legislators.
What accounts for Democratic women’s relative legislative success? In part, their achievements in office may reflect what drew them into politics in the first place. Although the 2018 midterms were largely framed as a referendum on Trump, the president may have been less of a factor for candidates running in down-ballot races. A recent survey of first-time Democratic state and local candidates found that candidates’ primary motivation to run was their desire to change policy and make government more reflective of the people it serves. Standing up to Donald Trump ranked far below, as the fifth most common response.
Similar themes emerged in a series of interviews I conducted with Democratic women state legislators. New Mexico Representative Melanie Stansbury explained, “Between #MeToo, seeing the political discourse, and living in this very historical moment that we can’t quite see but women all over feel, the time had come for women to step up and do something to serve our communities and make change.” The desire to “organize people around the cause,” in the words of Florida Representative Anna Eskamani, is proving to be a powerful force for legislative action—even as women have to navigate “a system designed by people who don’t look like me,” as Georgia Senator Nikema Williams noted.
This raises the question: How might the presidential primary have played out differently if pundits spent less time discussing whether women could win and more time on how they are winning in politics today? We’ll never know for sure. But we do know that many women prevailed in 2018 by throwing out stale campaign playbooks and outdated notions of what a candidate looks like and embracing their personal stories and authentic community connections.
Washington State Senator Emily Randall shared that “as a queer woman of color who had worked at Planned Parenthood, I was told I couldn’t win in our district. But I kept having conversations with community members that affirmed that my voice was needed.” Eskamani, who was elected at age 28 as the first Iranian American legislator to serve in the Florida House of Representatives, agreed. “Most lawmakers have never struggled to pay rent, lived in poverty or walked two hours home from school in the hot sun. There were so many experiences I was proud to share on the campaign trail because my experiences are [my constituents’] experiences.”
Focusing on how women win allows us to see something else: The supposedly spontaneous emergence of women candidates post-2016 is actually the result of years of on-the-ground work by an array of organizations recruiting and training the next generation of political leaders from underrepresented communities, such as EMERGE and Emily’s List. The support provided by these and similar organizations working to elect black, Latinx, Asian American/Pacific Islander, immigrant, millennial/Gen Z, and LGBTQ leaders—as well as the networks that such programs have helped cultivate—is part of the secret sauce behind women’s electability, as well as Democratic women’s subsequent legislative success.
Super Tuesday revealed how much sway the electability narrative has over Democratic voters, both when it comes to gender and to race. But make no mistake: The march toward more reflective representation will continue in 2020, regardless of who tops the Democratic ticket.
And as states are proving, our democracy will be better for it.