Government officials, particularly those in the legislative branch, hold the power of the purse. They decide which programs get funded and prioritized. However, the makeup of key government posts at both the federal and local levels is a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty scenario for those seeking more equitable representation for women. On the one hand, it’s hard not to notice the dramatic leaps women have made at all levels of public service compared to just a generation ago. Topping them all: the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president.

On the other hand, female leaders continue to represent a minority of key positions at the federal level and a relatively small number of governorships and mayoral roles. So while there has undoubtedly been progress, women’s rights advocates argue there’s still a long way to go.

The road is even longer for those with nonbinary, gender-fluid and other nontraditional gender identities. According to the Victory Institute, 58 LGBTQ individuals have been elected nationwide—none at the national or statewide level.

Key Takeaways

  • The election of Kamala Harris as the nation’s first female vice president was a win for equality in federal government, although advocates contend that true gender equity is still elusive. 
  • Currently, women make up just over a quarter of seats in the U.S. Congress; their representation is higher within President Biden’s Cabinet. 
  • Of the country’s 100 largest cities, 73 are led by male mayors. 
  • Transgender and nonbinary candidates have broken through at the state level, winning several legislative seats since 2017. 

Gender in Federal Government Roles

Kamala Harris is perhaps the new face of female political leadership, thanks to becoming the first woman—not to mention the first person of color—to get elected on a presidential ticket. But when looking at the executive branch as a whole, women have been a powerful force for more than 30 years. 

President Joe Biden has nominated 11 women for his 23 total Cabinet posts (only three have been confirmed so far), representing the highest number of female leaders in history. During the Trump administration, women held seven Cabinet-level positions, including six who served concurrently, and as many as eight served concurrently during Barack Obama’s second term.

But it was Bill Clinton who really raised the bar in the 1990s, when nine women served concurrently during his second term. By contrast, 14 of George H.W. Bush’s 17 Cabinet members were men. Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet had a similar composition in terms of gender.

Legislators

Women have also made major gains in Congress. The House of Representatives currently has its highest-ever percentage of female members—118 of the 435 total seats—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The 117th Congress also includes 24 female senators, its second-highest number ever (the record was 25 in the last Congress).

Compared to their meager representation just a few decades ago, women politicians have made striking strides. During the 1991–1993 Congress, for instance, the 100 members of the Senate included only four women. And, back then, there were just 28 women at the other end of the Capitol in the House.

More than a third of today’s female members of Congress are women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. Of the 142 women in Congress, 23 are Black, 13 are Latina, 9 are Asian American or Pacific Islander, one is Native American, one is Middle Eastern/North African, and two are multiracial.

Overwhelmingly, the women who serve on Capitol Hill come from the political left. In the House, female Democrats currently outnumber female Republicans by a nearly three-to-one margin. And in the Senate, women Democrats have twice the number of seats as women Republicans—16 compared to eight.

However, that shift to the left saw something of a correction in 2021. After female Democrats triumphed during the 2018 midterm elections—a wave that brought progressives such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to Washington, D.C.—Republicans have clawed back. Despite electing only one nonincumbent woman to the House in 2018, the GOP saw 18 nonincumbent women win in 2020.

“Women around the country have watched other women before them be successful and realize, ‘Hey, I can do it,’” Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, a Republican who flipped her district last fall, told CNN.

Females in the House of Representatives

Pew Research Center

Courts

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett in 2020 to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left female representation on the country’s highest bench unchanged. The court’s female justices—Barrett, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—comprise three of the court’s nine members. 

That ratio is consistent with lower federal judgeships as well. Roughly a third of U.S. Court of Appeals judges, U.S. District Court judges, U.S. Magistrate judges, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges today are women, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. According to the Victory Institute, two gender-nonconforming judges serve at the state level and none at the federal level.

Fast Fact

In 1922, Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Senate, although she only served one day.

State Leadership

While the number of women serving as the top executive of their state has increased over the past couple of decades, female representation is arguably lower at the state level than in the federal government. 

Though, at eight, the current number of female governors is near a record (there were nine in 2004 and 2007), they represent less than one-fifth of all gubernatorial positions in the country. In the nation’s history, only 44 women have ever served as governor of a state, and 20 states have never elected a female chief executive.

What’s more, today’s female governors tend to lead smaller states. Only Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, heads the executive branch of a state that cracks the top 10 in population.

Gender representation is a bit more equitable in other key roles in state government, although women still trail men by a wide margin. At present, 19 women serve as lieutenant governor of their state and 68 hold other statewide offices such as attorney general or secretary of state, according to CAWP. In all, women serve in 95 of 310 statewide offices throughout the country, representing just over 30% of all such positions.

That’s almost exactly the same percentage as those who represent their constituents in a state lawmaking body. Currently, women comprise 2,285 of the 7,383 state legislators—30.9% of total seats—in the United States. However, the upward trajectory for female state representatives is undeniable, with their ranks growing fivefold since 1971.

While transgender individuals have yet to ascend to the top ranks of the federal government, they have achieved some success at the state level in recent years. In 2017, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender candidate to be elected to a state legislature when she won in Virginia’s 13th District. In 2020, five trans individuals won state seats, including Sarah McBride, an LGBTQ advocate who was elected to the Delaware State Senate. The Victory Institute puts the total number of gender-nonconforming, nonbinary/genderqueer, and transgender state legislators at 11. In Oklahoma, voters elected Mauree Turner, the first openly nonbinary person to the state House. She’s also the first Muslim legislator in Oklahoma.

Women as Mayors

As with other levels of government, women are making important strides at the urban level, though disparities persist. Today, women lead major cities like Chicago (Lori Lightfoot), Phoenix (Kate Gallego), and San Francisco (London Breed), marking a giant leap from a generation ago. 

Still, of the 100 largest cities in the country, only 27 had a female at the helm as of June 2020. (L16) A significant number of those female mayors are minorities. Six, including Lightfoot and Breed, are Black. Two big-city mayors are Latina, and two are Asian or Pacific Islander.

The gender disparity is evident when looking at midsized cities as well. As of 2020, women held just 23.3% of mayoral positions in U.S. cities with a population over 30,000, according to CAWP. According to the Victory Institute, no transgender, nonbinary, or genderqueer individuals currently serve as mayors.

The Bottom Line

Over the past three decades, the growth of female leaders at all levels of government has been significant. But considering that they comprise 51% of the overall population, their representation in key political roles continues to be a work in progress. The representation of nonbinary, gender-fluid and others with nontraditional gender identities is massively further behind. But the 21st century has seen big changes over the 20th century, and that’s progress.