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Gender Representation in the Democratic and Republican Parties

by Jo Freeman: Chapter 11 of her book We Will Be Heard

Gender Representation in the Democratic and Republican Parties

This article was originally prepared as a lecture for the Nordic American Studies Association, held in Trondheim, Norway, on August 7, 2003. I revised it into a paper and prepared the tables while I was at the Centennial Center of the American Political Science Association in the Spring of 2004. I'd like to thank Elizabeth M. Cox, Eric Eisinger, and Sarah Chilton for their help with the research. Although some of the state party rules were online, most were not. I read them in the DNC and RNC headquarters in Washington, DC. I'm indebted to Ann Lewis, Phil McNamara, Erica DeVos, Christy Agner, and Geneva C. Jones at the DNC and Brian Marshall and Dyllan Rankin at the RNC for arranging access and assisting in locating the information in these tables. I was able to find most of the relevant state law online, but not all state codes are organized for online access in a way that made it possible to find out what I needed to know. I read the last dozen or so state codes at Boalt Hall Law Library at the University of California at Berkeley when I was on campus to give a lecture in the spring of 2005.

In the late twentieth century, group representation acquired a "bad rep" in the United States, Yet for most of U.S. political history since the mid-nineteenth century, political parties paid particular attention to representing identifiable groups when putting together their slates. This was especially true in cities heavily populated by the descendants of earlier waves of immigration. A place at the political table was one part of the American dream. When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago between 1968 and 1973, it was common knowledge that ethnicity was second only to loyalty when the Democratic machine run by Mayor Richard J. Daley picked people to run for public office. The rule then was that the Democratic ticket for the top city offices generally had to have at least one Irishman, one Jew, and one Pole. African Americans were rarely considered for these offices, though they did get a couple of state legislative and Congressional seats in majority black districts. Women of any ethnicity weren't even on the maybe-list, though a deserving woman might be given a lower-level position after years of faithful party service-if she had the right connections. Since Chicago in those years was solidly Democratic, slating by the machine was tantamount to election, except in a few small areas of the city (Porter and Matasar 1974).

Although women weren't run for public office by the big city machines, they weren't ignored. Indeed, "making a place" for women was a well-established tradition within the parties if not by them. This tradition began with women's enfranchisement and expanded over the decades. It was strongly promoted by women working inside the major political parties who saw it as "an opening wedge" to greater influence (Blair 1929, 218-19).


Women got suffrage slowly, in bits and pieces, in different places over many decades. By the end of the nineteenth century four Rocky Mountain states had given women equal suffrage with men: two by territorial legislatures, and two by popular referenda. Colorado was the leader in bringing women into the parties.

Woman won suffrage in Colorado in 1893 largely as a result of the Populist Movement. The People's Party was stronger in Colorado than in any other state. As part of its effort to break the dominance of the Republican Party, it campaigned for and won suffrage for Colorado women. This attracted national attention and made Colorado something of a test tube for the participation of women in politics. At the urging of its women the Populist Party proposed that there be one man and one woman from each district on its governing committees (Sumner 1909, 58). While only partially successful, this idea was quickly picked up by women in the Democratic and Republican parties. It was erratically applied. Not until 1906 did the state conventions of these parties adopt equal representation as official policy. Impatient with implementation, party women in Colorado appealed to the legislature. They backed their appeal with organization, having both Republican and Democratic women's clubs with membership in the thousands. In 1910, Colorado became the first state to require equal representation on party committees by law (Meredith 1934, 10-11).

Although only a few state parties followed Colorado's lead before 1920, the idea that for every committeeman there should be a committeewoman became known as "the Colorado Plan." Ellis Meredith, a Colorado suffragist and Populist who became a Democrat when the two parties fused, made equal representation one of her causes. She took it with her when she became director of publicity for the new women's bureau of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) created in December of 1916. By 1918, when both national committees were deciding how to incorporate women, the Colorado Plan had become the model. It soon became known as "50-50." For the next fifty years its attainment was high on the priority list of both Democratic and Republican women (Vaile and Meredith 1927, 1134).

Women's first success was in the national committees, their second in the state and local committees, and last of all at the national conventions. This reflected the respective importance of these bodies, with the least important being the most willing to accept women on an equal basis with men. By the time women achieved equal, or almost equal, representation at the national conventions, these bodies no longer made major decisions.

The National Committees

Party committees are the official governing bodies of the major political parties. While there are committees at many levels, the most important committees are the state central committees and their executive committees. In the nineteenth century each state party sent one representative to its national committee. Apart from running the parties' presidential campaigns, the national committees weren't very important. They sustained the party between the quadrennial nominating conventions, but since most elections were state and local elections, there wasn't much to do. Within each state, the most important party committee is usually the county committee. Currently there are roughly three thousand counties in the United States, though there were fewer in earlier times. There may also be party committees for a wide variety of legislative districts. These vary from state to state, and can change over time. Depending on state politics they may be more important than the county committees.

Each state was authorized to send one woman as well as one man to the national committee by the Democrats at their 1920 national convention and by the Republicans at their 1924 national convention (New York Times, June 26, 1920, 2:6; Democratic Congressional Wives Forum [DCWF] 1960, 27; Republican National Committee [RNC] 1924, 90, 93). Prior to this formal expansion, each party's national committee appointed some women as associate members, the Democrats in 1919 and the Republicans in 1923 (DCWF 1960, 31; Good 1963, 15; Literary Digest, July 4, 1923, 15). At the 1952 Republican national convention the Eisenhower forces compelled the addition to the Republican National Committee (RNC) of those state party chairmen from all but solidly Democratic states (i.e. the South) (RNC 1952, 278-98, Rules 22 and 23). Although this was intended to reduce the weight of Southern committee members, women protested strongly that since the state chairs were male, it would reduce their representation as well. None­the­less the New York Times reported that "as a battle of the sexes it was rather one-sided. The women made the speeches and the men got the votes" ( New York Times, July 11, 1952, 1:4). In 1968, RNC membership was extended to all state party chairs, appeasing the South, but not the women. Women's demand that state vice chairmen, all of whom were women, be added to the national committee was denied (Saloma and Sontag 1973, 95). A similar effort at that year's Democratic National Convention to add state chairmen and state Young Democratic presidents to the DNC was defeated by 1,349.25 votes to 1,125.75 (National Party Conventions, "1968").

The loss that Republican women protested was merely symbolic. Important decisions weren't made by either national committee. In 1950, Florence J. Harriman, who represented the District of Columbia on the DNC from 1924 to 1955, described it as "rather a farce. . . . We're just figureheads. That's all. . . . The National Chairman and the Vice Chairman runs it all" (Harriman oral history 1950, 29). Being a national committeewoman was not a route to influence but a reward for contributing money and service.

Although the formal organization of the national committees has not remained constant, custom or rules of both parties since the early 1920s have required that at least one woman be a vice chair or assistant chair of each national committee, usually with jurisdiction over party women. In the days when the national parties had women's divisions, its head was the top party woman, regardless of whether or not she was also a vice-chairman. Between 1940 and 1960 there was always one, but only one, woman vice-chairman of the DNC, while the Republicans had two out of four, neither of whom headed the RNC Women's Division. After 1937 the woman in charge of women on the RNC usually held the title of assistant to the chairman or assistant chairman and was paid for her services. In 1940 she became an ex officio member of the RNC Executive Committee. In 1971 her title was changed to co-chairman (Good 1963, 52-54).

State Party Committees

National leaders in both parties urged that the state parties adopt 50-50, but the receptivity of party men to this suggestion varied enormously. In 1922, after Emily Newell Blair was given the task of organizing the DNC Women's Division, she wrote the three thousand Democratic county chairmen for the names of the women on their committees. Only seven replied, and one answered "None, thank God" (Blair 1940, 15). To change this attitude, DNC Chairman Cordell Hull wrote all of the state chairmen, urging them to put women on their committees, even if that meant changing the state law. Only a few states passed statutes, but Blair reported early in 1924 that "in more than thirty States women have representation on state committees, and down through the county and ward to the precinct committees" (New York Times, March 16, 1924, IX:18:2).

During the 1920s the drive for 50-50 statutes was led by Republicans, in part because they controlled most of the state legislatures. Several states passed laws similar to Colorado's; some also required that the vice-chairmen of each committee be female, or of the opposite sex than the chairman, or that half the officers be female. Where 50-50 was not required by state law, it was often required by party rule. In 1927, the League of Women Voters found that "equal representation on the general party committees is now the prevailing though not universal practice, by party rule rather than by law" (National League of Women Voters 1927, 4).

In 1929 Blair assessed the effects of 50-50 as mixed. States which had not adopted it by law or rule showed no increase in the number of women on party committees; without a "special place" women did not get in at all. However, in 1928 Eleanor Roosevelt observed that "women who have gone into politics are refused serious consideration by the men leaders" and recommended that women organize women to back women political bosses (Roosevelt 1928, 78). Blair concluded that showing such prowess only caused a backlash: "as soon as women used their knowledge to their own advantage against some men on the committees, they found themselves replaced by women who did not have such knowledge" (Blair 1929, 220, 224, 227).

Despite these less than glowing assessments, party women in states that did not have 50-50 labored to get it. After Republican women in Illinois failed to add it to the state primary law they persuaded both parties to require it by rule on some committees (Republican Women of Illinois 1931, 4). The New York legislature passed several laws to permit parties to require 50-50 that the courts repeatedly invalidated. At the 1938 state constitutional convention delegates changed the state constitution to keep the courts from doing so again (New York Constitution, Article XIII, §1).

In 1933, when Molly Dewson took over the DNC Women's Division, she found Democratic women's "political participation was casual and spotty" (Dewson 1949, I:54). Believing that 50-50 was the best way available for women to get responsibility in the party organizations, Dewson made it a priority. The Women's Division produced a study of state election laws and drew up model legislation which it urged Democratic women to have passed in their states. In August 1935 DNC Chairman Jim Farley sent a letter to all Democratic county chairmen giving his support for the plan, and asking theirs (Democratic Digest 1935, 31).

Without national pressure, state parties often ignored women's demands for representation. But even with it, they wrote laws or rules than ran short of equal representation. Some states defined the primary duties of the vice chair, or co-chair, as supervision of the party's women's clubs, and used the pronoun "she" to distinguish it from the supposedly generic "he." Others specifically made the female leader of a party unit subordinate to the male leader, even to the point of total exclusion from the ruling executive committee. When rules did require women on the executive committee, it was not in equal numbers with men (Segal 1971, 9896-97). In the 1950s the RNC held an annual campaign school for its state chairmen; the women vice chairmen were not invited (Summers 1954).

There was a significant increase in states with some form of 50-50 during the 1920s and 1930s, but little increase afterwards. A study done in 1947 found that the Republican Party provided for equal representation on all party committees only in the states where it was required by law, and on some party committees in another twenty-one states. "In only eight states-Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin-has no systematic effort been made to secure equal representation in either party, either by statute or by party regulation" (Fisher 1947, 89-90). More progress was reported in 1960 by a Democratic Party survey that showed 50-50 was required on all committees in twenty-one states, on some in nineteen, and on none in ten (DCWF 1960, 42). Those were the last systematic surveys done of 50-50 laws and rules before the present one.

During the 1970s, when the federal Equal Rights Amendment was being debated and ERAs were added to some state constitutions, Washington state Democrats challenged the 1927 law which mandated 50-50 on their state central committee as a violation of the state ERA (among other things). The state supreme court rejected their challenge, finding that "mandated equality" did not violate the state ERA or the First Amendment right to freedom of association ( Marchioro v. Cheney 1978).

The National Conventions

Delegates to each party's quadrennial nominating convention are selected by each state party. Although a few women delegates had represented the full suffrage states before 1920, in that year women's participation jumped. It jumped again in 1924, declined in 1928, then remained fairly stable until 1972. Unlike the national committees, the national conventions made important decisions for most of the twentieth century. Equal representation was occasionally proposed but not seriously considered. Through 1968 women were never more than 15 percent of Democratic delegates or 18 percent of Republican delegates. Since the Democrats permit divided votes and women were somewhat more likely to be given a partial vote than were men, their proportion of total delegates was slightly higher than their proportion of the total vote. Women were more likely to be selected as alternates, sometimes as much as 29 percent. Republican conventions traditionally have fewer delegates and more alternates than do Democratic conventions; women often found their place as alternates. Some states tried harder than others to choose women, though only the Florida parties required equal division. (See table 11.1.)

Table 11.1. Percentage of Female Delegates at the Republican and Democratic Conventions

Republican convention Democratic convention
1916 .5 1.0
1920 2.7 7.4
1924 10.9 14.0
1928 6.4 10.6
1932 7.5 11.6
1936 6.1 15.0
1940 7.8 11.4
1944 9.5 11.8
1948 10.2 12.6
1952 10.5 12.6
1956 15.7 11.2
1960 15.1 10.1
1964 17.8 14.3
1968 16.7 13.3
1972 29.8 39.9
1976 31.5 33.7
1980 35.9 49.8
1984 48 49.5 (1951/3942)
1988 36.4 48.8 (2055/4214)
1992 42 49.7 (2146/4319)
1996 32.8 (602/1836) 49.9 (2157/4320)
2000 34 48.2 (2108/4372)
2004 44 49.8 (2170/4353)

Sources: At Republican National Conventions each delegate has one vote, so the total vote was used as the denominator in calculating the percentage of women. The Democrats frequently allowed delegations to split their votes so the total number of delegates had to be counted to calculate the percent women. States include territories and any entity allowed to send delegates to the national conventions. These varied from convention to convention.

1916–1932: Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston. Women in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Their Political, Social and Economic Activities. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933. Reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1972, 289.

1936–1944: Fisher, Marguerite J. and Betty Whitehead. “Women and National Party Organization.” American Political Science Review 38 (October 1944): 896.

1948–1956: Democratic Congressional Wives Forum (DCWF). History of Democratic Women. 43-page pamphlet prepared under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee, 1960.

1960–1980: Lynn, Naomi. “American Women and the Political Process.” In Women: A Feminist Perspective, 3rd ed., ed. Jo Freeman, 410. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1984.

1984–2004: Democratic data from Elizabeth Wainright, deputy director for delegate tracking, Office of the Secretary of the Democratic National Committee. Republican data from a variety of sources: 1984 was from the Republican Women Information Services at the convention, run by the National Federation of Republican Women; 1988 from Rob Fairbank, delegate tracker for the 1988 convention; and 1996 from Lisa Ziriax, communications director of the National Federation of Republican Women. 1992 and 2000 are averages from delegate surveys done for news organizations; 2004 is from an RNC press release, which also averaged delegate surveys done for news organizations. Repeated requests to the RNC for more exact delegate counts for 1984, 1992, 2000, and 2004 were ignored.

There are some slight differences in the data. The numbers in the DCWF pamphlet (which start in 1892) vary from those in Fisher and Whitehead. Elizabeth Cox re-counted both women and total Democratic delegates from the Proceedings of each quadrennial convention from 1916 through 1964. I used her numbers to calculate the Democratic percentages for those years.

Data from delegate polls done by various media were obtained by the author at the conventions and are reported in the stories she wrote on those conventions.

Women did better in gaining equal representation on the convention committees. There are usually four convention committees: Credentials, Platform (or Resolutions), Rules, and Permanent Organization. How important a committee is varies with the politics of each convention. Originally each state was entitled to send one representative to each committee; from the 1924 convention on at least one woman was on each committee at each party convention, with an occasional exception (DCWF 1960, 30). In 1936 Molly Dewson arranged for women to be appointed alternates to the Platform Committee so they could vote when their male delegate was not present (Dewson 1949, II:129). The 1940 convention voted to double the size of the next Platform Committee by permitting each state to send one man and one woman; in 1944 there were forty-two women on the Democratic Platform Committee (Blair 1940, 38; DCWF 1960, 30).

In the Republican Party, Maine national committee­woman Marion Martin led a similar movement. In December of 1936 the RNC voted for equal representation on future Resolutions Committees, but it was not enforced. The composition of the convention committees was not in the permanent rules; each convention passed a new resolution, though a perfunctory one. Beginning in 1944 Republican conventions voted that each state could send one man and one woman to the Resolutions Committee (Good 1960, 25-26, 41-42; DCWF 1960, 30; RNC 1944, 32, 36-37). The 1944 Resolutions Committee had thirty women; several state delegations had no women to send. In 1959 the DNC voted for equal representation on all committees at the 1960 convention. The Republican convention voted in 1960 to require equal representation on all committees beginning in 1964 (CQ Weekly Report, September 25, 1959, 1307; Good 1963, 41).

Equal representation did not mean that women would be half of the voting delegates on the committees; it meant that each state had the right to send one female and one male delegate to each one. States which had no women delegates, or did not appoint one, simply lost a vote; this happened to several states in every convention. For some conventions the Democratic rules allowed delegations to select two members of the same sex for each committee "for which one of each sex was not available." As late as the 1968 convention, twenty-two Republican and thirteen Democratic delegations did not have the four women necessary for full representation on the convention committees (Segal 1971, 1996). In 1996, I was observing the Rules Committee at the Republican National Convention when a young man from West Virginia moved to change Rule 17 to allow each state to send two delegates of either sex to the convention committees. He said his state didn't have four women in its delegation and thus was deprived of representation. The woman chair quickly called for a vote, and without any discussion the motion was defeated in a voice vote by about two to one.

The slow movement toward equal representation of women took place between the Suffrage Movement and the women's liberation movement that emerged in the late 1960s. The latter, like the former, would catalyze greater participation by women in the political process but not in isolation from other changes that were going on. In the Democratic party these changes can best be characterized as a revolution; in the Republican Party they were more of a coup d'etat.

The Democratic Revolution

The Democratic Party traces its origins to Thomas Jefferson's and Andrew Jackson's Democratic-Republican Party-and even deeper to the antifederalists who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution. It has always been a coalition of outsiders even when it has been the dominant party (Freeman 1986). Workers, immigrants, the South, and small farmers have at different times been part of the Democratic Party's electoral base. The revolution in the Democratic Party was a result of conflicts between constituent groups in the coalition over the issue of representation. It was precipitated by the 1964 challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) when it contested the seats of that state's all-white delegation. While the compromise that was offered (and rejected) only gave the MFDP two at-large votes, the issues it raised about participation and representation in the context of the civil rights movement transformed the Democratic Party. The 1964 compromise also provided that future delegations must assure participation by all the voters in the state, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin. In 1968 the MFDP's successor was seated in place of the regular Mississippi delegation and Georgia's votes were split between the white regular and integrated insurgent delegations. Credentials challenges in another thirteen states were decided in favor of the regulars (National Party Conventions, "1964," "1968").

The 1968 Democratic convention was marked by turmoil and dissension, inside and outside. In 1968 state and local party leaders chose most of the delegates to the nominating convention, not the candidates. When the delegates met in Chicago, 67 percent of their votes went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey on the first ballot even though he had not run in a single primary. Because so many active Democrats felt "frozen out" of the candidate selection process, the Democratic Party created a commission to write national rules-rules which would provide guidelines for resolving the waves of disputes over who represented each state. One commission led to another, and in 1974 the Democrats held a non-nominating convention to adopt a national party charter. This became the governing document of the Democratic Party, to which all state rules and practices must conform.

The imposition of national rules that would supersede those of the state parties was the first revolutionary act. The second revolution superimposed onto traditional geographic representation a requirement for demographic representation, specifically for minorities, youth, and women in "reasonable" representation to their proportion of the population. Blacks had increased their importance to the Democratic Party when 90 percent voted for Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, a shift from about two-thirds in prior elections. Youth weren't yet voting, but were fighting the war in Viet Nam and protesting loudly. Persons between eighteen and twenty-one would be added to the electorate in 1971 with the addition of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Women were also organizing and speaking out. The National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC) was founded in 1971 as a bipartisan organization, but its Democratic Women's Task Force (DWTF) was always larger and more influential than its Republican equivalent. The DWTF had many personal connections to the party commissions writing and interpreting the new rules (Shafer 1983; Freeman 1987, 222).

In preparation for the 1972 convention most of the state parties tried to comply with the new delegate selection guidelines. I lived in a state whose major city-Chicago-did not. Mayor Richard J. Daley's complacency about his own powerful place in the Democratic Party was not disturbed by such trivial things as national rules. His machine would elect the delegates he selected, virtually all of whom were male.

Less than half of the states held primaries in 1972, but these elected almost two-thirds of the delegates. Some states had both delegate selection primaries and presidential preference primaries; some did not. In Illinois there was no presidential preference primary; individuals ran for delegate, either committed to a specific candidate or uncommitted. In Chicago the Daley Democrats ran uncommitted so that Daley could decide how they would vote at the convention. When I heard in the fall of 1971 that Shirley Chisholm-the first black woman to be elected to Congress-was going to run for the Democratic Party's nomination for president I decided to run for delegate in order to put her name on the ballot in Chicago's First Congressional District. There were only four of us in Illinois running for delegate committed to Chisholm, all in different districts. I came in ninth out of twenty-four in my district; the top eight winners were all Daley machine Democrats. The next day I read about an impending challenge of Daley's delegation by others who had run for delegate in Chicago. They were committed to a variety of candidates-mostly Senators Ted Kennedy and George McGovern-whose names appeared on the ballot beside theirs, but all lost to Daley's uncommitted candidates in every district in Chicago. I quickly joined in. Because the Daley delegation did not comply with the rules for demographic representation, the Credentials Committee awarded those fifty-nine seats to our challenge delegation, which fully reflected the minority, female, and youth populations of each district. Daley contested this decision in court, but the Supreme Court quickly declared that the national party rules were supreme (Cousins v. Wigoda 1975). Mayor Daley of Chicago did not attend the 1972 Democratic convention.

This convention was more demographically representative than any that had gone before. Women and blacks trebled their representation among the delegates to 40 and 15 percent, respectively. The number of delegates under thirty went up tenfold. Along with this diversity came eighty-two challenges to the state delegations (National Party Conventions, "1972"). Conflict and controversy at the convention, coupled with defeat in the election, led to a backlash. Party regulars who felt excluded blamed "quotas" for the defeat. A new commission rewrote the rules to emphasize good intentions rather than good results. They still required affirmative action, but if a state party submitted and followed an approved plan, it was not held responsible for inadequate results. Midway through the 1976 selection process, the number of black, female, Latino, and underthirty delegates was running 15 to 35 percent less than in 1972. New, complex restrictions prohibited the challenge of delegations on the basis of composition alone. Mayor Daley and his cohorts took back their traditional seats at the 1976 convention.

The NWPC and the Caucus of Black Democrats didn't want this to happen again. They proposed stronger rules with "goals and timetables" for achieving specific results. Women especially wanted equal representation at the conventions from 1980 on.

The Rules Committee wouldn't agree to this, but there was enough support for a minority report, which would result in a floor fight. Jimmy Carter, the nominee-in-waiting, didn't want a contentious convention, so after several days of debate by women-delegates and nondelegates-meeting at the 1976 convention, agreement was reached to "promote" equal division at future conventions. In 1978, when the Democrats wrote the rules for selecting delegates to the 1980 convention, equal representation by gender was required for each state. The NWPC ran workshops all over the country to encourage women to run for delegate. In 1980 the DNC proposed amendments to the national charter requiring 50-50 on all national party bodies-convention delegates and committee members-and also on the Democratic state central committees. These were adopted by a voice vote at the 1980 convention and have been the rule ever since.

The Republican Coup d'Etat

The Republican Party took a different route. It was founded in the 1850s as a radical, progressive party. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was the party of African Americans. It also ran ten to twenty years ahead of the Democrats in supporting women's rights and bringing women into the political process. However, over the decades that it was the dominant party (1860-1932) it also developed a strongly conservative section; these two tendencies almost split the Republican Party in 1912. The party survived, while conservatives continued to fight progressives for dominance within. Feminists within the Republican Party found their home in its liberal wing, but the conservatives were better organized.

The conservatives recovered from a devastating defeat in 1964 by developing direct mail techniques to raise massive amounts of money and by appealing to traditional Democrats with conservative social values. They were not opposed to the greater participation of women, or equal representation on party committees, or initially opposed to women's rights, but they were determined to take control of the Republican Party. When they discovered that there was significant grassroots opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and also to the Supreme Court's decision legalizing most abortions, they quickly adopted these issues. Both issues became litmus tests in both parties, but for the opposite positions. Some conservative Republicans even worked to defeat liberal Republicans holding office, reasoning that it was worth the risk of electing Democrats to remove liberals from the Republican Party. Eventually the conservatives stigmatized the word "liberal" and drove Republicans who supported liberal social policies, such as abortion, into the far corners of the Republican Party. Republican feminists, who long ago ceased to call themselves feminists or liberals, went undercover or left (Freeman 1987, 240).

Like the Democrats, the Republican Party established a committee (on Delegates and Organization) to review its rules after its 1968 convention. Its chairwoman was Rosemary Ginn, a feminist from Missouri, and its July 1971 report said that each state should "endeavor to have equal representation of men and women in its delegation to the Republican National Convention." Balancing demands from feminists and conservatives, it also added to the Republican rules clauses asking each state to "take positive action to achieve the broadest possible participation by men and women" while adding that "these rules are not intended to be the basis of any kind of quota system" (RNC 1971). However, without enforcement procedures, nothing changed (Melich 1996, 69).

The Republican Party did not write a national charter. Its rules, which are voted on at each national convention, generally defer to the state parties. The 1971 language put into the rules has remained to this day. Republican women have never organized to ask for equal representation of women at the national nominating conventions. Indeed, leaders of the Republican Women's Task Force of the NWPC said in 1976 that they considered such a requirement to be an "illegal quota" (Freeman 1979). Generally, since 1972 women have been about one-third of the delegates, but a greater percentage of the alternates. However, the convention hasn't had a contested vote on anything significant since 1976, so who sits in the delegate seats has little impact on matters of political importance.

What Happened

The Democratic revolution and the Republican coup d'etat were part of other changes taking place in American society as a result of the sixties social movements and were also part of a partisan realignment that was shifting the social base and the issue priorities of each party. In the 1970s the Democrats supplanted the Republicans as the Party more committed to women's rights. The first party platforms where this was strikingly apparent were passed by the 1980 conventions; that year was also the first presidential election where women were significantly more likely than men to vote for the Democratic candidate. Ironically, in the very year in which women were required by their party charter to be 50 percent of all national party bodies, they became roughly 60 percent of the national Democratic electorate.

These changes turned what had been a politically neutral issue before the 1970s-making a place for women-into a politically loaded one. The parties different responses reflected not so much their different attitudes toward women as their different political cultures. Essentially, the Democratic Party is, and always has been, pluralistic, while the Republican Party is homogenous (Freeman 1986). The components of the Democratic Party coalition have changed over time, but its nature has stayed the same. This made the party readily responsive to claims that it was unrepresentative. Women were one of the groups whose claim for representation was seen as legitimate; "gender balance" was seen as the solution. The charter also requires "goals and timetables" to achieve representation for minority groups plus youth, "as indicated by their presence in the Democratic electorate." Discrimination against many other groups is specifically prohibited.

The Republicans saw such group representation as a form of "quotas" which interfered with individual decisions to choose or be chosen. While its quadrennial rules also prohibit discrimination due to a variety of demographic characteristics, they stop short of the Democratic mandate for representation and defer to the states to decide whom to represent and how.

Current Practices

The Republican Party retreated from the practice of 50-50, but didn't abandon it. The national committee is still composed of one man and one woman from each state plus the state chairs-most of whom are men. The national committee is required to have "a chairman and a co-chairman of the opposite sex" plus four men and four women vice-chairmen. But equal division is no longer required on the RNC committees. The tradition continues of letting each state send one man and one woman to sit on the convention committees, but there are no mandates on the composition of the state delegations.

The charter increased the size of the Democratic National Committee to three times the size of the Republican National Committee; the sizes of state delegations vary with population. The number of Democratic delegates to their party's nominating convention is roughly twice those of the Republicans. While 50-50 is required, it has never been perfectly achieved. Places are provided for party and elected officials, who are more likely to be male. Similarly the requirement of 50-50 for committees has been interpreted to mean all committees collectively, not each committee individually.

However, since both the national committees and the national nominating conventions now ratify decisions already made, who casts the votes has only a symbolic meaning. The method by which the parties choose their presidential candidates continues to evolve; it is never quite the same from one election to the next. But it can safely be said that the convention delegates play no part in choosing the major party nominees, and haven't in many, many years.

The biggest change in 50-50 requirements is in the state party committees. Surveys of state party rules were made most recently in 1960 for the Democrats and 1947 for the Republicans. There were only ten states in which there was no 50-50 requirement at all (eight in 1947; the two states added in the 1950s did not require 50-50). In 2003 and 2004 I reviewed the state party rules in the offices of the DNC and the RNC. While the language varies enormously, the Democratic Charter mandate is not followed by the party rules in four states; various ways are used to get around it. In the Republican Party twenty-one states require gender representation on the state central committees, but not always 50-50. The rules of several state parties don't require 50-50 but do require that the chairman and vice-chairman be of the opposite sex (even when the word used is chairman). Party rules are less likely to require gender representation in the precinct, county, and legislative district committees than in the state central committees, and least likely to require it in the ruling administrative committee. (See tables 11.2 and 11.3.)

Table 11.2. Republican State Parties with Gender Representation Requirements in State Party Rules, Constitution, or Bylaws in 2004 (States are the fifty states plus the District of Columbia)

SCC GC Int. Com Precinct
AL No No No
AK No No Yes+ Yes+
AZ No No
AR Yes+ 2VC/OS No Yes+ 2VC/OS
CA No No
CO No No No No
CN No No No
DE No No No
FL Yes+ Yes Yes
GA No No No No
HW No No No No
ID Yes+ No Yes +
IL No No
IA No No No No
KY No VC/OS Yes+ Yes+ VC/OS No VC/OS
ME Yes+ No No No
MD No No No
MA Yes No No
MN No No
MS No No
MO Yes+ VC/OS No
MT Yes+ No Yes VC/OS Yes
NB Yes+ VC/OS No Yes VC/OS
NV No No
NH No No No No
NM No No No No
NY Yes No
NC No No No No
OH Yes Yes
OK Yes+ VC/OS Yes+ Yes VC/OS Yes+ VC/OS
OR No No No No
PA Yes+ VC/OS No
RI No No No No
SC No Soft VC/OS No
SD Yes+ No Alt/OS Yes+ VC/OS Yes
TN Yes VC/OS No Yes+ VC/OS
TX Yes VC/OS No No
UT No No
VT Yes No No No
VA No No No No
WA Yes+ No No
WV Yes+ No
WI No No No
WY Yes+ No Yes Yes

SCC = State Central Committee or equivalent

GC = Governing Committee of the State Central Committee

Intermediate Com = County Committees and various district committees

Precinct = lowest-level committee, whatever it is called

Yes = gender representation is required in the state party rules

Soft Yes = rules encourage but do not require 50–50

+ = officers, elected officials, reps of other groups, but not by gender

No = rules cover committee composition, but don’t mention gender representation — = rules don’t mention this committee composition

VC/OS = requires vice chair of the opposite sex of the chair

2VC/OS = requires two or more vice chairs equally divided by gender

Alt/OS = alternate of the opposite sex

Table 11.3. Democratic State Parties with Gender Representation Requirements in State Party Rules, Constitution, or Bylaws in 2004. (States are the fifty states plus the District of Columbia)

SCC GC Int.Com Precinct
AL Yes Yes Yes+ VC/OS
AK Yes+ VC/OS Yes+ Soft Yes No
AZ —VC/OS Yes+
CA Yes VC/OS Soft Yes+Alt/OS
CO Yes+ VC/OS No No No
CN Yes+ VC/OS No No
DE Soft Yes+VC/OS No
DC Yes+ No
FL Yes+VC/OS Yes+ Yes C/OS
GA Yes+VC/OS No No
HW Yes+ No Soft Yes Soft Yes
ID Yes+ No
IL Yes+ No No
IN Yes+ Yes VC/OS Yes
IA Soft Yes + Soft Yes Soft Yes
KS Yes+VC/OS Yes+ Yes+VC/OS Yes
KY Yes+VC/OS Yes+VC/OS Yes+
LA Yes VC/OS Yes+ Yes+VC/OS
ME Yes +VC/OS No Soft Yes Soft Yes
MD Yes 2VC/OS No No
MA Yes No No No
MN Yes Yes Yes Yes
MS Yes VC/OS No No No
MO Yes VC/OS Yes + Yes Yes
MT Yes+VC/OS Yes+ Yes VC/OS Yes
NB Yes+ No Yes+VC/OS Yes
NH No No No No
NJ Yes No Yes VC/OS
NM Yes+VC/OS No No No
NY Yes 2VC/OS Yes Yes Yes
NC Yes+ VC/OS No Yes + VC/OS Soft Yes VC/OS
OH Yes 2VC/OS No No
OK Yes+ VC/OS Yes+ VC/OS Yes + VC/OS
OR Yes VC/OS No No No
PA Yes VC/OS No No
RI Yes 2VC/OS Yes+ No
SC Soft Yes VC/OS VC/OS Soft Yes VC/OS
SD Yes VC/OS Yes + VC/OS Yes+ VC/OS Yes
TX Yes VC/OS No No
UT No Yes+ No
VT Yes+ No
VA Yes+ No No
WA Yes+ No
WV Yes+ Yes
WI Yes VC/OS Soft Yes Soft Yes Soft Yes
WY Yes+ VC/OS No Yes VC/OS Yes


SCC = State Central Committee or equivalent (sometimes called the Executive Committee)

GC = Governing Committee of the State Central Committee (also called Executive Committee)

Int Com = County Committees and various district committees

Precinct = lowest-level committee, whatever it is called

Yes = gender representation is required in the state party rules

Soft Yes = rules encourage but do not require 50-50

+ = officers, elected officials, county chairs, reps of other groups, but not by gender

No = rules cover committee composition, but don't mention gender representation

-- = rules don't mention committee composition

VC/OS = requires vice chair of the opposite sex of the chair

2VC/OS = requires two or more vice chairs equally divided by gender

Alt/OS = alternate of the opposite sex

A review of state law reveals that many states have repealed their sections specifying the composition of party committees; others have kept composition requirements but removed provisions for gender representation. Colorado no longer follows the Colorado Plan. Its law on political parties now says that two persons shall be elected from each unit without specifying gender. Some state laws limit the election to one person per party unit (e.g., North Dakota, South Carolina), which makes it difficult for even the Democrats to engineer gender balance. Illinois, Louisiana, and California have different laws for the different parties, which authorize the Democrats to require gender representation, but not the Republicans. Oregon's and New York's gender representation requirements are optional. Some state laws require that the chair and vice chair be of the opposite sex, and that both represent their unit to the next higher committee; some that only the chairman represent the given unit. Only a few have changed the wording to "chairperson" (e.g., South Dakota). Many states simply defer to party rules on organization. (See table 11.4.)

Table 11.4. State Laws on Political Parties with Gender Representation Requirements in 2004

SCC GC CoCom LegCom Precinct
AL %2014
AZ No No No No No
AR No No
CA Yes+/No No
CO No No No No No
FL No No Yes+Opt Yes
GA No No
ID Yes+ No No No
IL Yes/No No No No
IN No No
KS Yes
LA Yes/No No No No
MD No No No
MA Yes No
MN No No No
MS No No No No
MO Yes VC/OS Yes VC/OS Yes
NV No No
NJ Yes Yes VC/OS Yes
NY Yes Opt Yes Opt
ND No No No
OH Yes No No
OR No No Yes Opt Yes Opt
RI No No No No
SC No No No
SD No Yes+ Yes
TN Yes
TX Yes VC/OS No No No
VT Yes+ No No No
WV Yes+ Yes Yes
WI No Yes Yes
WY Yes+ Yes Yes

(States are the fifty states plus the District of Columbia) Abbreviations
SCC = State Central Committee or equivalent (sometimes called the Executive Committee)

GC = Governing Committee of the State Central Committee (also called the Executive Committee)
Co Com = County Committees

Leg Com = Various legislative district committees (e.g., Congress, of St. Senate, Assembly)

Precinct = lowest-level committee, whatever it is called

Yes = gender representation in party committees is required in the state party law

Soft Yes = law encourages but does not require 50–50

Opt = law specifies gender representation, but makes it optional

+ = officers, elected officials, county chairs, reps of other groups, but not by gender

No = law covers committee composition, but doesn’t mention gender representation

— = law doesn’t mention committee composition

Yes/No = law has different requirements for the two major parties, though not always by name
VC/OS = requires Vice Chair of the Opposite Sex of the Chair

There are not as many states today as there were before 1960 which require or even encourage equal representation in their state party rules or state law. But what of the practice? No one keeps track of the sex of county chairmen, or of the other units of party representation below the state. Data on the number of women who have headed state parties is available from 1968 for the Republicans and from 1976 for the Democrats. The Republicans had three women state chairs in 1968 and 1976; the Democrats had two in 1976. In August of 2004, the Democrats had nine women heading state parties and the Republicans had eight. Only the year before both parties had fourteen women chairing their state parties. (See table 11.5.)

Table 11.5. Number of Women and Men State Party Chairs

States include the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other bodies which send delegates to the national nominating conventions. At different times these were Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Canal Zone, American Samoa, and Democrats Abroad.

Democrats Republicans
1968 3 47
1972 2 52
1976 2 53 3 51
1980 7 49 8 46
1984 4 53 9 45
1988 10 46 9 46
1992 7 49 9 46
1996 14 42 7 48
2000 15 41
2003 14 42 14 41
2004 9 47 8 47
2007 6 49

One of the Democratic women was African American and one was Hispanic. Diversity has increased in both parties, even without any rule specifying the sex of state chairs. It hasn't quite reached the national committees despite the long tradition of representing women. Only one woman has headed either party's national committee: Democrat Jean Westwood (Utah) served for six months in 1972, and Mary Louise Smith (Iowa) chaired the RNC in 1975-1976. Each was chosen by her party's titular head, and lasted as long as he did.

Furthermore, while the rules may specify gender balance, or even a heavy gender representation, that doesn't tell you where the power lies. Very little political power comes from position in formal party committees. Most comes from a variety of factors, such as personal connections and the ability to contribute to the success of a party's candidates. Traditionally, men have had more of these but women are catching up.


What then do we make of almost a century's experience with rules requiring gender representation in the governing bodies of U.S. political parties? Is it more than just window dressing? The studies of 50-50 are so few and far between that what little we do know comes more from impressions and anecdotes. They tell us that 50-50 might bring women in, but equal representation by itself does not bring much influence. Yet women have clung to 50-50, demanded it when they could, and given it up only when they had to. Were they naive? I think the answer lies in one's expectations. Gender representation of women did not bring direct, short-term benefits, except perhaps to a few individuals. But it did contribute to indirect, long-term changes. It gave more women exposure to and experience in party politics than would have attained these absent 50-50. And it got men used to having women around. When other social changes-specifically the feminist movement of the late twentieth century-opened the doors to women's greater participation in all aspects of society, and made female leadership acceptable, political women were ready, and political men were almost ready. The decades of experience with 50-50 did not make women's greater political participation possible, but did make it easier.

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