Political Pipeline Design: Insights from a Survey of Women Serving in State Legislatures

By Reniya Dinkins

According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), 29% of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States are currently women. This is a step forward from 2018, when only 25% were women.

From June 2018 to April 2019, Running Start surveyed women serving as state legislators in US states, territories, and the District of Columbia, who were in office June 2018 in order to collect self-identified demographic information and to learn more about their leadership training, experience running for office, and ties to mentorship. We’d like to thank our partners at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University and at Women in Government for providing us with the data resources in order to make our outreach successful. Thanks also to supporting partners The National Foundation for Women Legislators and Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center.

Most legislators responded by filling out an online form we emailed them; we also conducted some phone surveys and recorded their responses. We recognize that these preliminary findings are not perfect, as our methods were not perfectly scientific. However, we received a 19% response rate from legislators and believe that this data is generally reflective of women state legislators across the country.


Compared to women in the US population, the demographic data we found on women state legislators reveals that their backgrounds are not always a perfect representation of the country. Two characteristics especially jump out: age and education. Most of these women are at least 40 years old (65%) and only 7% are under 40. Yet, across the US, a whopping 26% of women are younger than 40 and only 49% are 40 or older. And while 88% of our women state legislators have a bachelor’s degree or higher, among all women in the US, only 32% have attained these educational credentials. Clearly, there is still work to be done to make sure women of all backgrounds and identities run for office. (A forthcoming formal report will paint a more detailed picture with the rest of the characteristics we collected data on.)

What encourages women to run? According to our survey results, community involvement, support from family and friends, being asked to run, and having a supportive partner are among the top factors that motivate women to run for office, revealing that encouragement from others is indeed key to women deciding to run. In addition, we found that when women participate in leadership activities at a young age, they are more likely to run for office in the future. 52% of legislators were Girl Scouts and 47% were in student government in school. Running Start trains young women to run for student government in our Elect Her program, which we bring to over 75 schools (2,500+ students) every year. These results support the importance of this work to create a pipeline of young women who will run for elected office.

In addition, 50% of women state legislators are mentoring a successor. While it was the least popular motivator for them to run for office (perhaps indicative of the lack of women in leadership in the past), mentorship still seems to be important to these women for raising up the next generation of leaders.

Check out a sneak peek of some of our other most interesting findings below!

Geographic Demographics

We received responses from legislators in all 50 states. The most responses came from the following states:

10% New Hampshire
6% Kansas
4% Pennsylvania
4% Maine
4% Oregon

Party Affiliation

67% Democrat
30% Republican
3% Other Party

According to Pew Research Center, here is the party breakdown among women in the US:
54% Democrat (or lean Democrat)
38% Republican (or lean Republican)

Women Under 40

7% are under 40 years old
65% are 40 years old and older
28% preferred to not respond

For context, 26% of women in the US are between the ages of 18–39, while 49% are 40 and older.

Race & Ethnicity

80% White
11% Black/African American
3% American Indian/Alaska Native
2% Asian American
0.2% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
8% Hispanic or Latino
0.8% Multiracial
7% preferred to not respond

According to the 2010 Census, here are the race and ethnicity demographics of women in the US population:
77% White
13% Black/African American
1% American Indian/Alaska Native
3% Asian
0.2% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
16% Hispanic or Latino
2% Multiracial


44% Heterosexual
2% Lesbian/Gay
1% Bisexual
52% preferred to not respond

According to the CDC, here are the sexuality demographics of women in the US population:
98% Heterosexual
1.5% Lesbian/Gay
1% Bisexual


80% identify as a cisgender woman
20% preferred to not respond

First-Generation College Student

23% were first-generation college students
73% were not first-generation college students
4% preferred to not respond

Veteran Status

2% are US veterans
96% are not US veterans
2% preferred to not respond

According to the US Census Bureau, 1.2% of women in the US are veterans.


2% have a disability
96% do not have a disability
2% preferred to not respond

According to the US Census Bureau, about 20% of women have a disability.


2% are immigrants
96% are not immigrants
2% preferred to not respond

Religious Minority

8% identify as religious minorities
89% do not identify as religious minorities
3% preferred to not respond

Highest Level of Education

1% received high school diploma or equivalent
5% completed some college, no degree
4% received an associate’s degree
30% received a bachelor’s degree
36% received a master’s degree
11% received some professional degree
11% received a doctorate degree
2% preferred to not respond
(88% have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher)

Compared to the US Census’ women in the US attained have the following levels of education:
20% received high school diploma or equivalent
36% completed some college or received an associate’s degree
32% received a bachelor’s degree or higher

Household Income Growing Up

13% low income
26% low-middle income
32% middle income
14% middle-high income
1% high income
1% varied
13% preferred to not respond

Current Household Income

1% low income
4% low-middle income
31% middle income
37% middle-high income
13% high income
14% preferred to not respond

Lost an Election

30% have lost an election before
69% have never lost an election
1% preferred to not respond

Motivation to Run for Office

1. Involvement in your community (85%)
2. Support from family/friends (73%)
3. Being asked to run (68%)
4. Having a supportive partner (65%)
5. Interest in a specific issue (54%)
6. Financial security (49%)
7. Involvement with a political party (46%)
8. Mentorship (29%)

Legislators with a Woman as a Chief of Staff

33% have a woman as a chief of staff
61% do not have a woman as a chief of staff
6% preferred to not respond

Legislators with Legislative Staff Experience

15% were once legislative staffers
83% have never been legislative staffers
2% preferred to not respond

Former Girl Scouts

52% were Girl Scouts
41% were never Girl Scouts
7% preferred to not respond

Student Government Experience

47% were in student government in high school and/or college
46% were never in student government
7% preferred to not respond

Campaign School & Leadership Training

36% went to a campaign school or had other leadership training before running
58% never went to a campaign school or had other leadership training before running
6% preferred to not respond

Popular campaign schools listed include Emerge, EMILY’s List, Wellstone, and the Women’s Campaign School at Yale.

Running for Higher Office

70% would consider running for higher office
28% would not consider running for higher office
2% preferred to not respond

Mentoring a Successor

50% are currently mentoring a successor
44% are not currently mentoring a successor
6% preferred to not respond

Sara Blanco contributed to this post.


Reniya Dinkins was born and raised in Washington, DC. She recently graduated from Columbia University with a double major in Political Science and Sociology, and her academic interests are centered on radical black feminism and black political thought. In 2016, Reniya was a Running Start intern through Urban Alliance, and while in college, she also interned at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. She also helped run a nonprofit called the WomanHOOD Project. Reniya’s passion is serving and uplifting underrepresented and underserved communities. Women’s leadership is particularly important to her because she values the importance of redefining what political leadership looks like.

Reniya currently serves as the Development Coordiantor at Running Start. Outside of work, she loves finding new books to read and enjoying the many things to do in DC.


As a Latina, Sara Blanco is especially interested in empowering women of color to run for office. Her leadership experience includes participating in and then co-chairing a women’s leadership development series in her grad program. Sara is a current and lifelong Arlingtonian. Under her fresh leadership, Running Start’s social media presence has grown 500%!

BA, English Literature & Gender and Sexuality Studies, Swarthmore College (2012); MPP, Gender Policy, the George Washington University (2018)

@sarablancosays, LinkedIn, www.sarablancosays.com


Elect Her was developed with AAUW, the American Association of University Women.