• The Ascend Fund

Systemic Challenges May Hinder Women’s Political Gains



Number of women running for the state legislature in Michigan and Washington increases, but gender parity likely to remain elusive.

In Michigan and Washington, two of The Ascend Fund’s pilot states, women stand to gain state legislative seats in the November election. The potential gains for women this cycle would continue an exciting trend toward gender parity in politics. This goal is within reach in both states: We need to elect just 21 more women in Michigan and 12 in Washington. However, women continue to face systemic barriers, which is hindering progress towards parity, not just in 2022, but beyond.


Potential gains for women in both Michigan and Washington


In Michigan, women are 36% of current state legislators and 38% of general election candidates. [1] In Washington, women are 42% of current state legislators and 48% of general election candidates. [2] All else being equal, the percentage of candidates who are women often closely corresponds to the eventual gender makeup of a legislative body. Thus, we may see an increase in the number of women legislators in both states.


Whether more women running will translate into more women serving in the state legislatures depends on the ever-changing electoral context and political landscape. This is an especially complex question in Washington where the “Top 2” primary system means two members of the same party could face off in the general election, eliminating partisanship as a driving vote factor in those races.


Systemic barriers continue to hamper progress


Despite an increase in the number of women running, we continue to hear from our partners in Michigan and Washington that systemic barriers make recruiting women to run for office challenging. Moreover, many of these barriers persist even after women are elected. Making progress on three of the most common systemic challenges, caregiving responsibilities, poorly designed institutions, and rising threats of political violence, is necessary to put gender parity within reach.


1. Childcare/Caregiving Responsibilities


Women disproportionately shoulder caregiving responsibilities, a fact thrown 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. [3]


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. [4] Thanks to bills introduced by women legislators, a bill passed in Washington and another is under consideration in the Michigan.


But it’s not just about running for office – caregiving responsibilities can limit women’s ability to attend training programs. To address this, Ascend partners like Black Womxn Win, a program sponsored by Mothering Justice, and Women’s Public Leadership Network, have used a portion of their grant funds to offer financial support for childcare and on-site childcare. This is the power of giving general operating grants to Ascend partners; it allows them to direct their grant funding in creative, impactful ways.


2. Outdated Political Institutions


Once women are elected, they enter an institution that wasn’t designed with them in mind. State legislatures were originally created to allow members to hold jobs outside of government, and at a time when it was assumed those elected would be white male landowners with the freedom to travel to the state capitol. Over the years, state legislatures have failed to evolve into workplaces that make it possible for women, particularly women of color, to thrive. We continue to see:


Low legislative pay


The average base salary for a state legislator is around $40,000, though this excludes the seven states that do not provide any. [5] While many legislatures are considered part-time with members in session between 30-days and six months 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.


"In many places, state legislators are paid as if legislating is a part-time job – but it’s not. Legislators must work outside of the legislative session, meeting with community organizations and other local elected and community leaders, and visiting with the community to understand and serve the needs of their district. For the independently wealthy, legislating can be a full-time job but, at the current salary rates, it absolutely cannot be for working class women, women of color, and single parents. Low legislative pay keeps our legislative bodies white, wealthy, and male."

– Melissa Rubio, OneAmerica


An unwelcoming environment


Once elected, women, particularly women of color, often enter a political environment that is unwelcoming at best and hostile at worst. In Washington, several women of color decided not to run for reelection in 2022. [6] Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley, a Black, queer woman, described the Washington Legislature as a “toxic environment,” writing, “I know the signs when leadership is propping you up or looking for a place to put you to shut you up.” [7]


3. Increases in Political Violence


Political violence is on the rise in the United States, and it’s having a chilling effect on recruiting women to run for office. In Michigan, where a group of men plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, 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 from political service, particularly women, parents, and minorities, who receive more threats than other groups. [8]



In the long term, we need policy solutions to curb political violence, such as increased penalties for threatening elected officials and prohibiting carrying guns in state houses and government buildings. [9] In the short term, women need the tools to protect themselves. Ascend 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 so often at the heart of political violence. [10]


Transformational change requires transforming leadership


We need to address the systemic barriers that keep women from running in order 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 elect diverse women who will bring new points of view and skillsets to the policymaking table. Learn more about the critical work our partners in Michigan and Washington are doing to bring us closer to a reflective democracy:





[1] Center for American Women and Politics – Women in State Legislative Elections

[2] Center for American Women and Politics – Women in State Legislative Elections

[3] The Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Modern Family: How Women Candidates Can Talk about Politics, Parenting, and their Personal Lives

[4] The Vote Mama Foundation – Campaign Funds for Childcare

[5] National Conference of State Legislatures – 2022 Legislator Compensation

[6] KUOW – Washington lawmakers of color announce departures, one call the work environment ‘toxic’

[7] South Seattle Emerald – Kirsten Harris-Talley: Why I Am Not Seeking Reelection

[8] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – The Rise in Political Violence in the United States and Damage to Our Democracy; The Center for American Women and Politics - Gender and Race Difference in Mayor’s Experiences with Violence

[9] GQR – Political Violence and American Democracy

[10] The Gender Policy Report – “That Woman From Michigan”: Gretchen Whitmer and Violence Against Women in Politics