Increasing Representation 2020

Measuring Texas Women’s Advances in Elected Office 2020

Why Track the Number of Women in Texas Government?

With 254 county governments, 1,214 city governments, 1,227 school boards, and over 3,300 special district units, the state of Texas boasts the second highest number of local governmental units in the United States—second only to Illinois. Yet that number pales when one considers that there are over 14,000 elected officeholders serving statewide across Texas.

Despite this impressive number, just over 4,800 of these offices are held by women. Women currently comprise 50.4% of the population in Texas, and are often key voters in every election, yet women do not hold an equivalent number of seats at any level of elected office. In Texas, only 32% of all elected officials are women.

Overall, the findings of the study show that despite much improvement, there are still many obstacles that affect the number of women elected, and that local and judicial office offer the strongest example of success in moving women further in the fight for equal representation. 

Comparisons of Women’s Representation by Branch

Beginning in the summer of 2019, the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy began collecting the names of all elected officials in Texas, including school district boards, county and municipal governments. The lists were organized by branch, level and location. Graduate student researchers cross-checked the list of names with published biographies, campaign statements and government publications to find the stated gender of each of the officeholders.

By studying the list of the 2019/2020 Texas officeholders, we determined that less than a third of elected offices in Texas are held by women. Perhaps more interesting is that proportion of women serving varies significantly from branch to branch. The percentage drops when we examine the legislative and executive branches of the state government and jumps when we look at the judiciary and local governments. As these local offices offer a stronger level of representation for women, they therefore give us some insight into ways to encourage more women to run.

The judicial branch has the highest number of women serving in office, with women holding 40% of elected positions on the bench. From there, the percentage of women officeholders drop to 33% in county office, 32% in municipal office, 25% in the legislative branch and a slim 13% in the executive branch.

One common thread in our interviews with women officeholders is that local government and local courts are problem-solving institutions. Candidates enter office to find solutions. This allows candidates to emphasize retail politics, where politicians speak directly with constituents about solving problems and concerns in the community. Women also make a special effort to increase communication lines, which may explain the high number of women that run for and win office in these levels of service.

“I believe women often bring good relationship skills, not just directed at the ones we are most comfortable with, but an interest in expanding our relationships in a broader way,” said Donna Bahorich, a member of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).

The lack of representation is most pronounced at the national level, where both of the Texas Senators to the U.S. Senate are men. The House of Representatives has better representation, though only 17%, or 6, are women.

Similarly, the Texas executive branch’s representation of women is unimpressive. The disparity between men and women serving is the greatest among executive positions, as only 1 woman serves—in the role of Railroad Commissioner—compared to 8 men. Further, men fill almost two times as many positions as women on executive agencies, appointed boards and commissions, with 448 women and 832 men serving in the mix of appointed and elected roles.

Politicians that run for office at a state level often rely on political party affiliation, name recognition or advertising, which can make it difficult for voters to judge a candidate’s intent.

“I think that there literally are people who run for public office just because they want to be an elected official,” said SBOE Member Pat Hardy.

Hardy campaigns on her work in public education as a way to connect with voters, which allows voters to judge her effectiveness in policy and leadership.

“That is where my heart rests and that is why I feel I’m an effective leader in education.”

She feels her positive name recognition is what has helped her get elected.

Hardy’s sentiments echo what other women have said. Women’s attention to underserved policy areas—education and healthcare, for example—has led to an increase in the number of women running and winning. The Texas Senate has 9 women and 22 men serving, while the Texas House of Representatives has only 22 women and 114 men. Yet the numbers are improving.

“When I started in the Senate, there were four female Senators,” said Senator Jane Nelson.

Now that there are more, she feels the women are allowed to make a strong, positive impact.

“We each bring unique backgrounds and experiences that shape our approach to governing. Women make up over half of the population, and it is vital that our perspective is part of the discussion. Plus, women are good listeners and problem solvers.”

These traits often lead women to work across the aisle and co-sponsor legislation, as they work to have a permanent impact in areas that may be missed by their male colleagues. The ability to have long-lasting impacts is cited by women as a reason to serve in higher office.

“I learned pretty quickly that I could have a stronger impact as a legislator—on education and a wide range of other issues of importance to me, including policies that impacted businesses such as our family-owned aircraft component manufacturing company,” Senator Nelson said.

That desire to listen and to make a positive impact may also lead to more women running for seats on the Texas courts. Of the three branches of Texas state government, the courts are the closest to equal representation for women. The appellate court system offers the closest to parity, with women serving as 4 of the 9 justices on the Court of Criminal Appeals and women serving as 37 of 43 justices in the Court of Appeals. The Texas Supreme Court numbers are lower, with women holding only 3 of the 9 seats on the bench.

When it comes to trial courts, women also see a considerably improved level of representation in district, municipal and justice of the peace courts. Just over a third of district court justices are women, with 174 women on the bench compared to 292 men; 308 women fill positions of justice of the peace courts compared to 494 men; and 493 women fill positions on municipal courts compared to 785 men.

County courts still demonstrate tremendous disparity, with nearly 90% of the county judges male. Only 27 women are county judges, but 227 men are judges. These numbers matter, as women bring different experiences to their positions.

The ability to recognize overlooked issues can be especially important at the county level, where government officials help the state serve its citizens. Local government directly impacts families, and that is where diversity of experience matters. Nearly one-third of elected county officials are women. Whether women draw on their perspectives from being a woman or not, the increased representation in office affects which problems are addressed.

Women in non-judicial county government fill 1,431 elected positions, while men fill 3,054 elected positions. Women in county courts are better represented than women in non-judicial elected office, filling 335 county court positions while men fill 721. The underrepresentation continues into municipal government offices. In municipal courts, women serve in 493 positions compared to men who serve in 785. There is a greater disparity in non-judicial municipal government with 2,213 women and 5,079 men.

As local government is tasked with improving the lives of its citizens in more direct ways, women in local offices may feel more connected to running for local office to help meet these goals. The nonpartisan offices may also increase interest.

Billie DeWitt, a city councilmember in San Angelo, said she feels women bring more balance to elected office.

“Women just want to get in and do a good job, and I think that having more women brings a more balanced approach and perspective to whatever is going on [and] whatever decisions are being made,” she said.

Mayor of Coppell Karen Hunt reflected on her reasons for running for municipal office, summing up what many related in their interviews.

“This is how I want to give back,” she said. “A lot of people run for the sake of running: that’s not the reason to do it. You should be running for a purpose—to give back or to serve.”

Lessons Learned

Despite the gains made in local office and judicial office, women remain underrepresented in Texas. The numbers provide some information, and the women officeholders interviewed provided context. In essence, women’s low levels of representation may be related to cultural roadblocks. Texans—both male and female—have not always been sure that women fit into the mold of a politician. This led to fewer women running for office. This is similar to numbers nationally.

Women were granted the right to vote in Texas primaries in 1919, with the full right to vote granted in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Yet the culture of Texas did not instantly warm to women running for office. Women were the primary caretakers of the family, and a job, especially a job in politics, was not approved by all voters. As society and culture shifted, an increasing number of women have started running for office. This is seen at the local level, which is often seen as the first step in holding office. Relationships, networks and retail politics is key to local offices.

Denton County Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell reflected on her experience running as a woman.

“40 years ago, not only did men frown on you [for serving in elected office], but other women would frown on the fact that you were out of the home,” Commissioner Mitchell said. “That’s what they’d call a man’s job.”

The societal disapproval was also visible in the questions women were asked while on the campaigns or in interviews.

“When I first ran for office, I was also raising my children who ranged from age 3 to age 10, and a lot of people asked me how I managed to do both,” Senator Nelson noted. “They didn't ask my male colleagues that same question.”

Despite norms that initially discouraged women from running, women have changed the state culture to ensure their voices and policy areas are addressed. And as women often feel driven to make an impact, they choose to run for offices that have direct impacts of quality of life.

“I felt like—not as a female, but as a teacher—I would bring something to that board, and I think I have,” SBOE Member Hardy said.

Women also directly confronted the notion that they didn’t belong in elected office.

Said Mayor Hunt, “In my career, I think early on, there were a lot of [times] when people would say, ‘You’re one of very few women—how do you feel about what you’re doing?’ and I’m going, ‘I am fully capable. I perform, so I refuse to believe that there is a differentiation.’”

A lack of encouragement is another aspect to the cultural divide. Women are less likely than men to be encouraged and asked to run for office. According to research by Jennifer Lawless, Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, women must be asked often before they consider running, with the often-quoted number of 7 times being used by women in politics.

And while men and women alike may be daunted by the idea of running for elected office, women have a harder time believing they are ready to run.

“There’s a lot of people who want to know the how and the why I got into public office,” said Mayor Hunt. “It seems like a huge leap that most people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I could do that.’ It is amazing to me when I talk to people [and] it’s like, ‘Well, geez, I could do that,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, absolutely you could.’”

“Honestly, it is younger women and people who volunteer in other areas that if I mention to them, ‘Have you ever thought about running?’ they’re like, ‘Oh - well, no.’ It’s almost like women have to be asked and men think, ‘I’m going to do that,’” Hunt said.

This leaves us with several ways to make a positive impact on representation. First, encourage more women to run. Second, train women to feel ready to run for office. Finally, increase discussion in schools about the variety of elect-ed offices open and the ways these offices change policy.

Research funded by the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership. Report written by Katelyn Garst and Jennifer Danley-Scott. Results compiled by Madeline Sertner and LaToya Hart.

Page last updated 4:45 PM, July 29, 2022