Democracy & Abortion Access: How Underrepresentation of Women in State Legislatures Threatens Freedom

Our guest author is Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

When the Supreme Court handed down the damaging decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, it did not just strip millions of people of their ability to control their own bodies and reproductive choices by ending the constitutional right to access an abortion. The Court also deepened the effects of long-standing, systemic efforts to silence the voices of women in our democracy.

Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs argues that women can redress the denial of their individual freedoms, such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, by exercising electoral and political power at the state level. But his statement is disingenuous and rings hollow upon closer scrutiny of the actual data.

The National Partnership recently conducted an in-depth analysis of representation in state legislatures as it relates to abortion access, entitled Democracy & Abortion Access: State Legislatures’ Lack of Representation Threatens Freedoms. It highlights the fact that many of those states which are the most restrictive when it comes to curbing abortion rights are also the least representative of women in their state legislatures. The presence of greater gender representation within the membership of state legislatures is connected to stronger abortion protections and policies which advance reproductive justice for the residents of those states.

The harsh reality is that, in many states, exercising political power is extraordinarily difficult – and that is by design. Most state legislatures are majority male, regardless of the state population’s gender breakdown. And many of the states with the biggest representation gap have a long and shameful history of suppressing women’s voices and votes, especially those of Black women.

In addition, states with the harshest abortion restrictions tend to be the least representative of women in their state legislatures. In contrast, states with a higher percentage of women legislators are more likely to adopt policies that provide abortion protections than states with a lower percentage of women legislators.

Let’s dive deeper into the numbers. As of September 2023, of the 24 states and DC where women make up more than a third of the state legislature, 84% have policies that support abortion access. And in the 26 states where women make up one-third or less of the state legislature, only 15% have policies that support abortion access. When it comes to the racial gender gap in state legislatures, we found that states where women of color make up 10 percent or less of the legislature are 2.5 times more likely to have restrictive abortion policies. And two-thirds of the states that are the most restrictive when it comes to abortion access have the largest gap for women of color representation.

In Mississippi, the state whose abortion ban led to the Dobbs decision, women make up only 14.4 percent of the state legislature and women of color a mere 6.3 percent, despite being 52.3 percent and 22.8 percent, respectively, of the state’s adult population. Mississippi also ranks as the second most difficult state to vote in, with an extensive list of anti-voter programs and discriminatory voting laws.

The lack of gender representation in state legislatures combined with the biases fueling restrictive abortion policies have had devastating consequences for millions of women – and women of color, in particular. Twenty-one states have implemented abortion bans or restrictions since the Dobbs decision, leaving more than 36 million women living in states where they lack the freedom to make the most basic decisions about if and when to have a child. Black and Native American women are the most likely to live in these states, as are disabled women and those who are economically insecure. Approximately 6.7 million Latinas are living in states that have or are likely to ban abortion, making them the largest group of women of color impacted by abortion bans.

Our findings are clear — representation of women and women of color matters in state legislatures when it comes to protecting people’s bodily autonomy. That is why the fight for federal protection of abortion must be an integral component of our fight to preserve and expand democratic rights for everyone