The Ascend Fund
An Off-Year for the Election of Women to Mississippi Legislature
In the state currently ranked 48th in the nation for women’s representation, fewer women are running for the Mississippi Legislature this year, making it unlikely that the number of women in elected office will increase substantially.
In 1924, Nellie Nugent Somerville and Carrie Belle Keaney made history as the first two women elected to the Mississippi Legislature. Ninety-nine years later, women make up a measly 14.4% of Mississippi legislators, and without intervention, women will not reach political parity in Mississippi for 137 more years.
To accelerate the pace of change towards parity, in 2021, The Ascend Fund invested $200,000 in four nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations in Mississippi that are committed to achieving gender parity and racial equity in the state’s legislature. This was part of a broader $600,000 pilot initiative that is informing how organizations nationwide empower and train diverse women to run for the state legislature – and win.
The Ascend Fund invested in Mississippi because, like in much of the South, women are severely underrepresented in the state’s legislature. Women hold only 25 of the 174 seats and the state is ranked 48th in the nation for women’s representation. Notably, Black women account for only 6% of legislators in the state, whereas they are more than 20% of the population.
Over the past 18 months, in the lead-up to the 2023 state legislative elections, our partners have worked together to recruit women to run for office and provided them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to run and win. While we celebrate their work, we recognize that progress is not linear and gender parity in state legislatures, particularly in the U.S. South, will require a long-term movement and continuous organizing.
Status of Women Candidates in Mississippi in 2023
Mississippi is one of seven states that holds off-year elections, meaning that state executives and legislators are elected in the odd years. Following the February 1st deadline to file to run for state office, women make up just 18.9% of state legislative candidates, a modest decrease from when women were 21.2% of legislative candidates in 2019, the last comparable election year. The percentage of women in office tracks closely with the percentage of women candidates, so to achieve gender parity, women must account for a larger percentage of candidates.
Women currently make up 20% of the state senate, holding 10 of the 52 seats. Women also account for 20% of state senate candidates in 2023, the same percentage of women candidates in 2019. While it is concerning that the percentage of women has remained flat, the 2019 election was just one year after 2018’s Year of the Women, when the number of women running for office dramatically spiked nationwide.
Women’s Representation in Senate to Projected to be Flat
It is likely that women’s representation will remain relatively flat after the 2023 election. In the worst-case scenario, women may lose one seat in the Senate, dropping from 10 to nine seats. However, if women are successful in toss-up districts, it is possible to end the 2023 election cycle with one additional seat, for a total of 11 women in the Senate.
Women remain deeply underrepresented in both the Republican and Democratic parties in Mississippi. While there are three Democratic women in the Senate and seven Republican women, women make up just 25% of Democratic candidates and 18% of Republican candidates. It follows that women are more represented in the Democratic party as women are disproportionally Democratic, but the underrepresentation of Republican women is a severe barrier to parity in Mississippi and Southern states that are overwhelmingly red. To achieve parity in all 50 states, we must dramatically increase the number of Republican women running for office.
Mississippi House of Representatives
Potential Losses for Women in House
Women currently make up 13% of the Mississippi House, holding 16 seats (7D, 7R, 2I) of 122 seats. There are 42 women running for the Mississippi House in 2023—six fewer than ran in 2019—and women make up 18% of Mississippi House candidates. While there are fewer women running this cycle, there are also more men running for the House.
Given that women are such a small percentage of candidates, it is unlikely that significant progress towards parity is made and possible that women will lose seats in the House this year. In the worst-case scenario, women could lose five seats in the House, dropping to a total of 11 seats. However, if women are successful in all the toss-up districts, women could retain five seats and pick up an additional seat, closing out the 2023 election with 17 House seats.
While Republicans hold a large majority in the House, only seven of the 76 Republicans (9%) in the Mississippi House are women. In comparison, seven of the 46 Democrats (15%) are women. There are also two Independent woman in the Mississippi State House. Therefore, it is notable that nearly twice as many Democratic women are running for the House than Republican women, especially as Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly a two to one in the legislature. To make significant progress towards parity, Republican and Democratic women must both run at higher rates, but Republican women have a much larger gap to make up.
Statewide Executive Office
While The Ascend Fund is primarily focused on achieving gender parity in state legislatures, we’re committed to 50% representation at all levels of office and closely monitor women’s representation in executive offices, where women have long been severely underrepresented. For a thorough analysis of the barriers women face when seeking executive offices, see Always the Lieutenant, Never the Governor.
In Mississippi, women currently hold just one of eight statewide executive offices; Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is expected to be reelected. Six women are running for five statewide executive positions this election cycle: governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner. However, no women are running for auditor, commissioner of insurance, or secretary of state. Additionally, it is unlikely that any new women will be elected to executive office as seven out of eight candidates are men with incumbency advantage.
Mississippi is one of 18 states that have never elected a woman governor, a pattern that is not likely to change this year. First-term incumbent Governor Tate Reeves is running for re-election, and only one woman, Independent Gwendolyn Gray, is running against him. Given the uphill battle candidates outside of the major political parties have, it is unlikely that a woman will be elected governor.
Barriers to Gender Parity in Mississippi
In Mississippi, and in the South writ large, running for office is not easy for women, particularly women of color. Candidates for public office face threats of violence, low legislative pay, childcare expenses, and an engrained culture of sexism and racism. These prevalent barriers to office, coupled with the lack of campaign finance regulations in Mississippi and the hostile political environment illustrated by the Dobbs decision, make it challenging for women to run. To reach gender parity in Mississippi and other state legislatures in the South, we must break down these barriers so that more women can run – and win.
A Culture of Engrained Sexism and Racism
Once elected, women, particularly women of color, enter a political environment that is unwelcoming at best and hostile at worst. When Representative Alyce Clarke was elected the first Black woman in the Mississippi state legislature in 1985, there was no bathroom for women in the legislative chamber. Her white female colleagues were allowed to use a private restroom, while she had been forced to travel to another floor. Rep. Clarke is retiring this year after 38 years in the legislature and while she and her colleagues have equitable access to bathrooms, sexism and racism are still incredibly prevalent in the legislature. Speaking after a recent legislative debate, Representative Solomon Osbourne described the Mississippi State Legislatures as “a Klan rally with people with suits on.”
Threats of Political Violence
Political violence is directly tied to the culture of sexism and racism, and is on the rise in the United States, and it’s having a chilling effect on recruiting women to run for office. High-profile attacks on lawmakers such as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi’s husband are strong deterrents from running for office and we are hearing that women are worried about their safety and that of their families. This corresponds with what experts say is a very real consequence of the increasingly hostile environment: Americans may be intimidated by political service, particularly women, parents, and minorities, who receive more threats than other groups.
In the long term, we need policy solutions to curb political violence, such as increased penalties for threatening elected officials and prohibitions against carrying guns in state houses and government buildings. In the short term, women need the tools to protect themselves. Ascend's national partner, She Should Run, offers trainings to help women protect themselves online, and #ShePersisted offers a digital toolkit to help women navigate sexism and misogyny, which are often at the heart of political violence.
Low Legislative Pay
State legislators in Mississippi are paid a base salary of just $23,500 a year, far below the already low average of $40,000 nationally. Only two Southern states, Alabama and Arkansas, pay legislators above the national average. While the Mississippi Legislature is considered “part-time,” with members in session between 90 and 125 days a year, an elected official’s responsibilities are year-round. Many spend well over 40 hours a week working on constituent services and attending community meetings, making it challenging to hold a second job. For women and women of color, who have less access to generational wealth, this makes running for office nearly impossible without family support, especially as the median household income in Mississippi is just $45,081 a year — the lowest in the nation.
In 2022, a measure was introduced to increase the pay for Mississippi legislators, but the bill did not pass. Mississippi did, however, raise the salary for the governor and all executive offices. To enable more women to run for office, the salary for legislators must be raised to reflect the true full-time work of a state legislator, so that people from all socio-economic backgrounds can serve.
No Campaign Finance Limits
On top of low pay once in office, running for office in Mississippi is expensive. Mississippi is one of 11 states that has no limits for campaign finance contributions to candidates running for statewide or state legislative office. Individuals, political action committees (PACs), unions, and political parties can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. This can have a stark effect on women’s representation as major donors, PACs, and political parties have historically given far more funding to men than to women.
Men running for the state legislature in Mississippi currently raise almost 30% more than women. This is a major barrier as candidates who raise the most win their elections 83% of the time. We must equip women with the necessary fundraising skills to run for office successfully and break down the systemic barriers that hold women back from outraising their male opponents.
Childcare and Caregiving Responsibilities
In addition to expensive campaigns due to a lack of contribution limits, childcare is an added cost many women running for office are personally burdened by. Women disproportionately shoulder caregiving responsibilities, a fact brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. Additionally, research shows that voters have concerns about the ability of women to balance family and the demands of elected office, especially women with young children. Mississippi is one of 21 states, many of which are in the South, that does not permit candidates for state office to use the campaign funds they raise to pay for childcare. In a state like Mississippi, where household income is already the lowest in the nation, this additional burden is a major barrier to running for office.
That’s why one of Ascend’s national partners, the Vote Mama Foundation, is working to pass “Campaign Funds for Childcare” legislation in all 50 states. This critical legislation will ease the financial burden of running for office not only for mothers, but for candidates with eldercare or dependent care needs.
2022 Dobbs Decision
There are few more pertinent examples of institutionalized sexism than the unending attacks on abortion rights. The case that overturned Roe v. Wade, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was brought by Thomas Dobbs, the Mississippi State Health Officer. Following the Dobbs ruling, a trigger law went into effect in Mississippi, prohibiting abortion in nearly all situations. Abortion providers will be charged with a fine of up to $100,000, up to 10 years in prison, or both for providing care. While abortion is largely popular in the United States, these prohibitions could discourage women, particularly women who have had an abortion, from running for office for fear of political attacks. To pass better legislation around women’s rights, however, we must elect more women to office. Studies show that women legislators are more likely than their male counterparts to introduce and pass bills that prioritize healthcare, women’s rights, and families.
Achieving Gender Parity in Mississippi
Transformational change requires transforming leadership.
We need to address the systemic barriers that keep women from running to increase the number of women in public office. And we need to work towards gender parity in politics not just because it’s what’s fair, but because it will build a stronger democracy. When inclusive participation in our democracy is undermined, it can lead to an erosion of rights and trust in public institutions.
We know the most direct way to change policy is to change the policy makers.
The Ascend Fund is committed to a two-pronged approach: helping our partners both address systemic barriers and electing diverse women who will bring new points of view and skillsets to the policymaking table. Learn more about the critical work our partners in Mississippi are doing to bring us closer to a reflective democracy.
The Ascend Fund is committed to a two-pronged approach: helping our partners both address systemic barriers and electing diverse women who will bring new points of view and skillsets to the policymaking table. Learn more about the critical work our partners in Mississippi are doing to bring us closer to a reflective democracy:
We encourage you to join us in supporting our partners and women running for office in Mississippi and in the South at large. If you are interested in running for office in Mississippi, visit the MS Women’s Political HQ, an online resource hub with detailed information about how to run for office in Mississippi.
Parity is possible in the South, but only when we work together. Over the last ten years, organizers have invested in breaking down the barriers to running for office and voting in Georgia, and as a result, women’s representation in the state legislature has increased from 22.9% to 34.7% - an increase of 52%. This is largely due to the work of Stacey Abrams and other Black organizers who saw the potential to make strides and committed to year-round organizing. The same progress is possible in the South writ large, but only if we invest in women’s leadership.
 Mississippi Today - Republicans don’t have to listen to their Black colleagues. That’s how they designed it.  National Conference of State Legislators – 2022 State Legislative Pay  Clarion Ledger - As governor, other state officials are set to receive pay raises, Mississippi legislators are not  Clarion Ledger - As governor, other state officials are set to receive pay raises, Mississippi legislators are not