Partisan Polarization and the Representation of Women in the U.S. Congress

35 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 29 Aug 2012

Date Written: 2012


Existing research on the underrepresentation of women in Congress has overlooked a critical feature of this trend: since the 1980s, the percentage of Democratic women in Congress has increased dramatically while the percentage of Republican women has barely grown. To explain this divergence, I develop a theory of party fit. The theory suggests that the ideological makeup of political parties sends messages about the types of candidates that belong in the party. I argue that the Republican Party disproportionately attracts male candidates because ideological moderates, and thus many Republican women, do not fit in an increasingly conservative and homogeneous Republican Party. Using data from the Candidate Emergence Study (Stone et al. 2004), I find that moderate Republicans in the political pipeline have lower levels of political ambition than conservative Republicans in the pipeline. However, these patterns do not emerge on the Democratic side. The Democratic Party, despite moving slightly to the left, has maintained more ideological diversity in its delegation and therefore attracts a wider range of candidates. This disparity in ambition among potential candidates has implications for the representation of women in Congress and the persistence of polarization in American politics.

Keywords: Women's Representation, Partisan Polarization, Congress

Suggested Citation

Thomsen, Danielle M., Partisan Polarization and the Representation of Women in the U.S. Congress (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Danielle M. Thomsen (Contact Author)

Duke University ( email )

United States

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