The Journal of Politics


The Primary Reason for Women's Underrepresentation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom

Jennifer L. Lawlessa1 and Kathryn Pearsona2

a1 Brown University

a2 University of Minnesota


When women run in general elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, they win at approximately the same rates as their male counterparts. With the exception of studies of selected congressional districts in particular years, however, scholars have virtually ignored the gender dynamics of the congressional primary process. In this paper, we fill this void, analyzing data from 1958 to 2004 to test hypotheses about women's victory rates and levels of primary competition. Our analysis results in an additional explanation for women's underrepresentation: the congressional primary process. Although women generally do not win primaries at lower rates than their male counterparts, women in both parties face more primary competition than do men. Gender neutral victory rates, then, are not the result of a gender neutral primary process. Women have to be “better” than their male counterparts in order to fare equally well.

(Received October 25 2006)

(Accepted May 16 2007)


Jennifer L. Lawless is assistant professor of political science, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912. Kathryn Pearson is assistant professor of political science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455.