Rose Ann Vuich, elected in 1976, was the first woman to serve in the California Senate. Whenever one of her colleagues addressed the chamber as "gentlemen of the Senate," she rang a bell to remind them of her presence. Her election also necessitated the remodeling of the Senate wing to add a women's bathroom.
Today, more than 30 percent of the members of the California Senate are women, and they don't need bells to be recognized. During the last election cycle in particular, women in politics on the national stage made headlines more than ever before. Public opinion polls indicate most Americans think men and women make equally effective leaders. But nationwide, women haven't joined the ranks of state legislators as quickly as expected. Just 24 percent of all legislators are women, an increase of fewer than four percentage points in 16 years.
So is there a glass dome in state capitols? Why aren't there more female legislators?
Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, has a simple answer: "When women don't run, women don't win."
Studies comparing state legislative candidates running as incumbents, challengers, and for open seats show that women win their races as often as men.
"In the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, we saw slow, steady growth both in the numbers of women running and women winning," says Walsh. "Since 1995, there's been a plateau in the numbers of women running for state legislatures around the country, which has resulted in a stagnation in the numbers of women holding office. We are not seeing the growth that we anticipated 25 years ago."
Indiana Representative Peggy Welch agrees there is no bias at the ballot box. "I think we've moved beyond the glass ceiling, in that people don't think about whether it's a woman or a man when deciding for whom to vote. But there are harriers to women's participation in the process that have a lot to do with their family responsibilities."
Women are now 57 percent of all college students and about half of all law and medical school students. Women are reaching, albeit slowly, the top levels of the business world.
"As women acquired the same credentials as men and entered the high-level professions that typically precede political careers, we thought we'd see steady gains in the numbers of women running for office," says political scientist Jennifer Lawless. "But we haven't seen that."
Lawless and colleague Richard Fox conducted an...