Serving their States, Building Potential for the Future

April 18, 2017

Center for American Women and Politics findings on Women of Color in State Legislatures

When the story of women in 2016 congressional elections was written, the overall number of women serving in Congress remained the same, but the number of women of color grew significantly. Of the 14 new women elected to Congress, nine were women of color. Three new women of color entered the U.S. Senate, expanding the total there from one to four and quadrupling all-time high to serve simultaneously. In the U.S. House of Representatives, six new women of color brought the House total to 34, also an all-time high.

Since state legislatures often serve as pipelines to higher office, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) examined the number of women of color in each state legislature, both as a proportion of women and as a proportion of legislators overall.

Nationally, women of color hold 5.9 percent of all state legislative seats; 23.7 percent of women lawmakers are women of color.

As more policy authority is devolved to states, representation of women and women of color becomes even more important substantively, as well. For example, last minute changes to the American Health Care (ACA replacement) proposal included the option for states to decide on essential benefits, receive Medicaid funding as a block grant, instead of a guaranteed benefit, and require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work. Recent plans to revive an ACA replacement proposal would give states even more authority on aspects of the law.

In other Gender Policy Report posts, ACA impacts on racial disparities in health insurance access and the many ACA provisions that benefit women and LGBTQ populations have been spelled out.

Research tells us that women of color bring their distinctive voices and experiences to elective office.

For example, African American women state legislators have been found to be distinctive from other legislators in their focus on women’s interests and African American interests. A similar pattern is emerging for Latinas in state legislatures.

The state with the largest proportion of women of color among its women legislators is Hawaii (76.2 percent), followed by Texas (62.2 percent), Alabama (60.0 percent), California (57.7 percent) and Mississippi (54.2 percent). Hawaii also has the largest proportion of women of color in its legislature overall (21.1 percent), followed by New Mexico (16.1 percent), New Jersey (15.0 percent), Nevada (14.3 percent) and Maryland (13.8 percent).

At the bottom of the list, three states have no women of color in their legislatures: North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Maine has one woman of color (1.6 percent of all women, .5 percent of all legislators) in its legislature.

Since communities of color have always been underrepresented in government, it’s important to strengthen their presence and impact at every level. We made progress in the recent elections, but we need many more women of color to run and win.

— Debbie Walsh, Director, Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers

— Photo of Representative Susan Allen, one of four Native American women serving in the Minnesota legislature, by Paul Battaglia, Minnesota House Information

Proportion of Women in State Legislatures

*States with the exact same percentages within their category are given the same rank; states with no women of color share the rank of 48.

Additional details:

More information is available about women in state legislatures and women of color in elective office on the CAWP website.