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Women Still Underrepresented in Legislative Races

It remains a daunting political reality in Texas. While women make up more than half the state, they are underrepresented in the halls of power, and it appears the 2016 elections will do little to change that.

State senators take the oath of office on the first day of the Texas Legislature on Jan. 13, 2015.

When lawmakers returned to the Texas Capitol last January, a group of women gathered on the Senate floor for a picture capturing a legislative milestone — by holding just eight of 31 seats, they had set a record for the most women ever in the upper chamber. 

Such modest milestones reflect a daunting political reality in Texas. While women make up more than half the state, they remain underrepresented in the halls of power. And it appears the 2016 elections will do little to change that.

With filings now closed for the state's 2016 legislative races, the greatest possible number of women lawmakers — assuming every incumbent, challenger and long-shot woman candidate won  would be 55 of the 15o House members and 10 senators.

In the 2015 legislative session, only 36 of the 181 state legislators who served were women. Only 76 of the 333 candidates who have filed for legislative offices are women, including incumbents.

“It always hovers around 20 percent for female representation,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a public affairs and political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The number of women in office surged in the 1990s, she said, but growth has since halted. “There were very few women in elected office, and then it surged to where we are now. That was the good news, but I think the bad news is we’ve plateaued.”

Women will lose at least one seat in the Texas House since no female candidates in either party are seeking the Denton-based seat of retiring Republican state Rep. Myra Crownover.

In the Senate — where the count of women fell to seven after the retirement of former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio — women could pick up a seat. Four men and three women are looking to fill the spot vacated by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.

But while many women filed as primary and general election challengers across the state, none filed for candidacy in four of 15 open House seats. And no women will be on the ballot for the other vacant Senate seat, which opened up with the departure of Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

“In the almost 10 years I’ve been in the Legislature, I’ve seen us hit our high-water mark and then lose women,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “It is kind of a dilemma when we thought we were moving in the right direction, all of a sudden we started to go backwards a bit.”

While the 2015 legislative session marked a high point for women in the Senate, their numbers in the House peaked in 2009. Between the 2007 and 2009 sessions, women gained five seats in the House to hit 37. But they lost five seats in the following election, and their numbers dropped to 29 last year.

“We’re pretty much treading water if you will,” Howard said.

Female lawmakers and political insiders say the electoral disparity among men and women springs from insufficient recruitment, legislative maps benefiting incumbents — most of whom are men — and long-standing institutional inequality in politics.

One challenge, they say, is that women are less likely than men to seek elected office without first being asked to run.

Because they are underrepresented in Texas politics, it’s often harder for women to instinctively see themselves in those roles, said Patsy Woods Martin, executive director of Annie’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. That, coupled with the demands some women face balancing careers with duties as the primary family caretaker makes running for office “insurmountable,” she added.

“In light of all those things, it’s very easy for woman to say no,” Woods Martin said. “It’s probably easier for a woman to say no than to say yes to adding elected office to their plate.”

As Democrats have worked to elect more women, the underrepresentation of women among legislative candidates — and officeholders — has become more apparent when divided up by party affiliation.

Of the 76 women who filed for office, including 28 incumbents, 50 are Democrats and 26 are Republicans.

That’s in line with the imbalance at the Capitol. In the 2015 legislative session, Democrats and Republicans each had 18 women holding seats.

But, Democrats being the minority party, women filled almost 29 percent of the party’s seats. Women only made up 15 percent of the Legislature’s Republican majority.

“Maybe in some cases there’s not as much of a tendency to recruit people for whatever reason,” said state Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene. “But I think that’s a huge impetus for anybody, male or female, to run for office if they believe people are encouraging them, supporting them, pushing them.”

King, who is vacating her West Texas House district to run for Fraser’s Senate seat, also questioned whether it was a geographic conundrum, pointing to her first run for House in which she faced off against four men in a Republican primary. King said her 2006 win made her the first women to represent a rural district in West Texas, but women are still significantly underrepresented in rural areas.

Nationally, women don’t come close to making up 50 percent of any state legislature, but Texas women fare worse than women in most other states.

In 2015, Texas ranked 29th for its percentage of female lawmakers, according to data compiled by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Only 19.8 percent of the 181 state legislators who served last year were women, putting Texas below the national average of 24.4 percent.

“You have some of the most famous political women in history coming out of the state of Texas between Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. You’ve had women in the United States have women who are mayors of big cities,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “There’s a real culture of women’s political participation yet at the legislative level it's really never been” there.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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