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Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Representation in State Legislatures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2019

Beth Reingold*
Emory University
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Symposium: State Legislatures at 400
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

For most of the 400-year history of state legislatures, women and racial/ethnic minorities have been excluded as both voters and elected representatives. Although many African American men gained state-legislative office during Reconstruction and the first white women were elected in 1894, it was not until the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and the second wave of feminist movements that women and minorities began gaining state-legislative seats in significant numbers. At the time, few political scientists noticed. By the 1990s, however, many began asking questions about gender, race/ethnicity, and political representation and looking to the diversifying state legislatures for answers.

This article assesses the trends in and research on state-legislative diversity since the 1970s. It demonstrates how the study of state legislators has contributed significantly to our understanding of gender, race/ethnicity, and representation by leveraging the rich institutional and demographic variation that the states offer. Nonetheless, I argue, there is considerably more that scholars can learn by taking intersectional approaches to the study of race/ethnicity and gender and by paying more attention to institutional structures of power.


In terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, state legislatures are much more diverse—or descriptively representative—today than in decades past. In 1973, shortly after passage of the VRA and congressional approval of the Equal Rights Amendment, roughly 97% of legislators were white men. Forty years later, in the wake of President Obama’s 2012 reelection, two thirds were white men. The most recent data available show impressive gains for both women and racial/ethnic minorities. Since 1973, the number of women increased from 424 (6.4% of all state legislators) to 1,874 (25.4%) in 2018; the number of black legislators grew from 238 (3.1%) to 686 (9.3%) in 2016; and the number of Latinxs rose from 77 (1%) to 326 (4.4%) in 2017.Footnote 1 Between 1980 and 2015, the number of Asian Americans doubled (from 55/0.7% to 108/1.5%) and, between the mid-1990s and 2018, the number of Native Americans tripled (from 26/0.3% to 81/1.1%).Footnote 2 In the wake of the second “Year of the Woman,” women hold a record-breaking 2,112 (28.6%) state-legislative seats in 2019—an unprecedented one-year increase of 3.2%.Footnote 3

Equally remarkable is the variation in gender and racial/ethnic diversity across the states. In 2018, women comprised anywhere from 11% to 40% of legislators in any given state. Historically, Southern states elected the fewest women. Most of the growth in black representation, conversely, occurred in the same Southern legislatures. Five of the six states with the most African American legislators in 2016 (22% to 29%) are in the Deep South. Elsewhere, African Americans rarely comprise more than 10% of legislators; almost half (44%) of non-Southern states have at least one chamber without any black legislators. Growth in Latinx, Asian American, and Native American representation has been more concentrated. As of 2018, five states claim half of all Latinx state legislators. Similarly, almost two thirds (64%) of Native American legislators are found in only five states. Until the twenty-first century, at least 80% of Asian American legislators served in Hawaii. In 2015, 46% served in Hawaii and half of the remainder (27%) was found in only four other legislatures. Nonetheless, Latinxs, Asian Americans, and Native Americans alike have recently gained entry to more state legislatures.


State-legislative research has played an important role in understanding these changing patterns in diversity and the underrepresentation of women and minorities. This research frequently focuses on individual- or district-level analyses of the supply of and demand for (or support of) diverse candidates. But it is from the vantage point of the 50 states that we have learned the most about how political-opportunity structures, or various political and electoral institutions, channel and constrain the ambitions and fortunes of candidates.

Studies of state-legislative elections were among the first to establish the power of the VRA and the creation of single-member, majority-minority districts to increase minority representation, especially of African Americans in the South (Davidson and Grofman Reference Davidson and Grofman1994). Thus, it is no coincidence that the number of black legislators has increased after almost every redistricting effort since the 1970s (Hicks et al. Reference Hicks, Klarner, McKee and Smith2018); Latinx representation has kept pace with Latinx population growth; and variation in minority representation across state legislatures today now tracks variation in state minority populations (Hardy-Fanta et al. Reference Hardy-Fanta Carol and Pinderhughes2016).

Studies of state-legislative elections were among the first to establish the power of the VRA and the creation of single-member, majority-minority districts to increase minority representation, especially of African Americans in the South (Davidson and Grofman Reference Davidson and Grofman1994).

As recent studies confirm, African American population size is the most powerful determinant of African American representation, and the size of the Latinx citizenry is the most powerful determinant of Latinx representation (Casellas Reference Casellas2011; Hicks et al. Reference Hicks, Klarner, McKee and Smith2018; King-Meadows and Schaller Reference King-Meadows and Schaller2006; Lublin et al. Reference Lublin, Brunell, Grofman and Handley2009; Preuhs and Juenke Reference Preuhs and Gonzalez Juenke2011). VRA-empowered minority electorates almost always elect minority candidates; little else seems to matter (but see Hicks et al. Reference Hicks, Klarner, McKee and Smith2018). Given the overwhelming importance of district racial composition, legislative scholars must pay close attention to recent challenges to and reforms of state-redistricting institutions and their impact on racial representation.

The study of term limits is another prime example of the significant contributions of state-legislative research (Carey et al. Reference Carey, Niemi, Powell and Moncrief2006; Carroll and Jenkins Reference Carroll and Jenkins2001; Casellas Reference Casellas2011). Many early term-limit advocates expected that removing entrenched white male incumbents would open up opportunities for women and minorities. Yet, by establishing the absence of any significant or consistent effects of term limits on descriptive representation, researchers discovered that incumbency was not the only or even primary obstacle to gender and racial/ethnic political incorporation.

Women-and-politics scholars have studied how other state-level institutions structure the opportunities and incentives for descriptive representation. Multi-member districts have been consistently more beneficial to women than to minority representation (Darcy, Welch, and Clark Reference Darcy, Welch and Clark1994; Matland and Brown Reference Matland and Brown1992; Rule Reference Rule, Rule and Zimmerman1992). Women may feel more confident running—and parties, voters, and others may feel more comfortable supporting them—when they are not the only possible winner. Studies show that legislative professionalism and strong state-party organizations inhibit women’s representation for similar, gendered reasons: the more powerful and competitive the office, the more likely that women’s viability as candidates will be underestimated (Rosenthal Reference Rosenthal1998; Sanbonmatsu Reference Sanbonmatsu2006; Squire Reference Squire1992).


Armed with large numbers of diverse and relatively accessible elected representatives working in similar (yet different) institutions, state-legislative scholars have also contributed considerably to our understanding of how diversity affects legislative politics. For example, state research has enhanced our understanding of whether and how descriptive representatives provide more substantive representation of women’s and minority-group interests than their white male counterparts. Whereas congressional studies often focused on analyses of roll-call voting behavior, state studies offered several conceptual and research-design innovations.

Before the proliferation of NOMINATE scores, state-legislator surveys provided less constrained and more reliable cross-chamber measures of policy preferences and ideological predispositions, thereby verifying the theory that descriptive representation enhances substantive representation (Button and Hedge Reference Button and Hedge1996; Dodson and Carroll Reference Dodson and Carroll1991; Epstein, Niemi, and Powell Reference Epstein, Niemi, Powell, Thomas and Wilcox2005; Thomas Reference Thomas1994). Surveys and interviews also enabled scholars to examine gender differences in self-reported legislative priorities and leadership styles, confirming that women legislators are more likely to care about women’s issues and practice more egalitarian, consensus-building leadership (Dodson and Carroll Reference Dodson and Carroll1991; Hardy-Fanta et al. Reference Hardy-Fanta Carol and Pinderhughes2016; Jewell and Whicker Reference Jewell and Lynn Whicker1994; Reingold Reference Reingold2000; Rosenthal Reference Rosenthal1998; Thomas Reference Thomas1994). State scholars pioneered the use of bill sponsorship to gauge policy leadership and the agenda-setting effects of descriptive representation (Bratton and Haynie Reference Bratton and Haynie1999; Reingold Reference Reingold2000; Thomas Reference Thomas1994). To this day, these studies of legislative advocacy on behalf of women and minorities provide the strongest evidence of the link between descriptive and substantive representation (Osborn Reference Osborn2012; Rouse Reference Rouse2013). Most recently, randomized field experiments gauging the constituent responsiveness of state legislators greatly enhanced our ability to isolate the causal effects of descriptive representation (Butler Reference Butler2014).

State research has had an even more central role in our ability to gauge the relationship between descriptive and substantive representation at the aggregate, or institutional, level. Here, too, institutional variation in descriptive representation and policy outcomes across the states is key. Several studies demonstrated that racial and ethnic diversity in legislatures can foster policy change on behalf of minority interests or block proposals deemed harmful (Filindra and Pearson-Merkowitz Reference Filindra and Pearson-Merkowitz2013; Haynie Reference Haynie2001; Preuhs Reference Preuhs2006). However, studies examining the impact of legislative women on policy outcomes report more mixed results (Crowley Reference Crowley2004; Kreitzer Reference Kreitzer2015; Weldon Reference Weldon2006). One of the most comprehensive studies found that the percentage of women legislators is associated with the adoption of only eight of 34 women-friendly policies examined; in three instances, the relationship was in the opposite direction (Cowell-Meyers and Langbein Reference Cowell-Meyers and Langbein2009).

Since the 1970s, the number of women of color elected has increased more rapidly than white women and men of color. Indeed, the increases in descriptive representation discussed previously have been driven largely by women of color, especially black women and Latinas (Hardy-Fanta et al. Reference Hardy-Fanta Carol and Pinderhughes2016).


State-legislative scholars are and should continue to be on the forefront of new directions in the study of gender, race/ethnicity, and representation. First among these are more intersectional approaches that consider both race/ethnicity and gender as intersecting and interdependent forces that shape political institutions, processes, and outcomes (Smooth Reference Smooth2011). Frequently, these studies call attention to women of color who have been rendered invisible by the predominant “single-axis” approaches that group all women, all African Americans, and all Latinxs together (Crenshaw Reference Crenshaw1989). In doing so, this intersectional research can reveal how gender and race/ethnicity interact to affect the election, behavior, and impact of all individuals—raced women and gendered minorities alike.

Since the 1970s, the number of women of color elected has increased more rapidly than white women and men of color. Indeed, the increases in descriptive representation discussed previously have been driven largely by women of color, especially black women and Latinas (Hardy-Fanta et al. Reference Hardy-Fanta Carol and Pinderhughes2016). Political scientists have long noted these trends (Darcy and Hadley Reference Darcy and Hadley1988; Prestage Reference Prestage, Githens and Prestage1977; Rule Reference Rule, Rule and Zimmerman1992). However, only recently have we begun to examine the origins and impact of minority women’s representation more thoroughly and intersectionally.

Bejarano (Reference Bejarano2013) and Scola (Reference Scola2014), for example, revealed how standard women-and-politics models—and, to a lesser extent, standard race-and-ethnic-politics models—do a better job identifying the institutional and demographic correlates of legislative officeholding for white women and men of color than for women of color. Other studies suggest that women of color are more ambitious and uniquely qualified campaigners (Bejarano Reference Bejarano2013; Darcy and Hadley Reference Darcy and Hadley1988; Hardy-Fanta et al. Reference Hardy-Fanta Carol and Pinderhughes2016). Yet, more research is needed before we can fully understand how the institutional environment channels that determination and skill to promote or inhibit the descriptive representation of minority women. Similarly, the growing literature on the representational behavior of women of color suggests that they often assume distinctive leadership roles in advocating for the interests of women, minorities, and minority women in particular (Bratton, Haynie, and Reingold Reference Bratton, Haynie and Reingold2006; Brown Reference Brown2014; Reingold and Smith Reference Reingold and Smith2012). But, again, more research—especially state-legislative research—is needed to understand the complex institutional and intersectional dynamics of gender, race/ethnicity, and representation.

Despite the burgeoning research on the election and impact of women and minorities in state-legislative office, little attention has been given to their power within these institutions. What research there is presents a mixed picture. Women enjoy their “fair share” of party and committee leadership positions (Darcy Reference Darcy1996, 888; Jewell and Whicker Reference Jewell and Lynn Whicker1994; Thomas Reference Thomas1994) and black leadership is “virtually assured” as long as Democrats control the chamber (Button and Hedge Reference Button and Hedge1996; Haynie Reference Haynie2001; Orey, Overby, and Larimer Reference Orey, Overby and Larimer2007, 637). Yet, reports of discrimination, exclusion, and stereotyping—especially in the higher ranks—abound, often in the same studies. Importantly, legislative leadership and the institutional power it confers may be a crucial link between descriptive and substantive representation, especially at the aggregate level (Preuhs Reference Preuhs2006; Reingold and Smith Reference Reingold and Smith2012). Clearly, more research on state-legislative leadership selection is needed. The more attuned that research is to both the intersecting dynamics of race/ethnicity and gender and the varieties of legislative institutions, the more we will learn about the politics and processes of representation and inequality.


1. National and state-level figures were provided by the Center for American Women and Politics; Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Carl Klarner (personal communication; August 6, 2018); National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials; and Lemus (Reference Lemus1974).

2. See various editions of the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac (UCLA Asian American Studies Center, and Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies). Data on Native American state legislators were provided by McClain and Stewart (1995, 109) and the National Council of State Legislatures’ State-Tribal Institute (personal communication, August 13, 2018).



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