Photo: Ralph Barrera /Associated Press
Almost 95 years have passed since the first woman was elected to the .
Edith Wilmans, a Dallas lawyer and activist, was elected in 1922 and served one term before running unsuccessfully for governor.
When Wilmans died in 1966, women made up barely more than 1 percent of the Legislature, according to the Texas Politics Project of the University of Texas.
Fifty years later, women have made progress but remain dramatically underrepresented in the state’s legislative ranks. Women make up 20.4 percent of the Legislature today. The national average for women in state legislatures is 24.9 percent.
Women hold only 19.4 percent of the seats in Congress.
These numbers show the difficulty of real social and political change.
“Women comprise half of the population, and we should comprise half of the state Legislature and of the ,” said Sen. , the dean of women in the Texas Senate, in response to an email inquiry about the underrepresentation of women in the Legislature.
Zaffirini was elected in 1986, becoming the first Mexican-American woman to win a spot in the state Senate. When she took office, Zaffirini became one of three women in the Texas Senate. Today, eight women are in the 31-member Senate.
Why are women underrepresented? Zaffirini said, “The simple reason is that women do not run for office as often as men do. When we do, we often win.”
The math is clear, but the reasons that fewer women run for office are complicated. Female candidates continue to face hurdles that don’t confront men.
“Political culture plays a huge role in the way constituents view political institutions and those they elect. Texans have a stereotypical view of what an elected official looks like, and more often than not, it isn’t a female,” , associate professor of political science and geography at the , wrote when asked about the issue via email.
A traditional view of the female role as the spouse who shoulders most family household duties has been perceived as a limitation on the number of women political candidates.
Navarro noted that in some areas of the nation that limitation is receding and some research has shown a change.
“However, a state’s political culture and how women are perceived or expected to act, like Texas, suggest otherwise. In Texas, we still have a very traditional view of how women should act and the familial roles they are expected to fulfill,” Navarro said.
Zaffirini is optimistic about the improving dynamics.
“Times have changed, Texans have changed and situations have changed. Today, many of us hold working husbands and fathers to the same standards and responsibilities that working wives and mothers have accepted for years. Younger and future generations will change these expectations even more dramatically as young couples share responsibilities at home and beyond.”
Organizations such as Annie’s List, which promote and provide financial support for women candidates are helping, but political parties must provide more than lip service to move women toward parity.
Navarro said, “Parties have to make the effort to consciously make a commitment to a female candidate from the stage of recruitment, funding, to election. In the state of Texas, there is a lack of commitment from both parties to commit to female candidates.”
Zaffirini noted that research shows women are more likely to run for office if they are recruited.
“Accordingly, I believe that political parties and activists need to do more to recruit women candidates and encourage them to run,” the senator said.
Women’s progress is undeniable. Holding 20 percent of legislative seats is far better than 1 percent. But the pace of movement toward equality is embarrassing. It is not OK when 50 percent of the population holds only 20 percent of the legislative positions.