Advice for Women in Politics in Virginia

The numbers have improved, but it’s still a bleak scene when it comes to women holding office across the U.S.

New data released Tuesday by the Center for American Women and Politics shows women continue to be vastly underrepresented in municipal government nationwide.

According to the report, they hold less than one-third of all municipal offices, including mayoral and municipal council positions, with their share of seats increasing only slightly from 31.5 percent to 32 percent since 2022.

Virginia ranked No. 12 on the center’s list with 36.5 percent of municipal offices being held by women, which is down two slots since its 2022 report. By comparison, Arizona and Alaska are tied for first place at 45.1 percent.

The Center for American Women and Politics said the stats hold true across the board: Women hold fewer than a third of seats in Congress (28 percent), governorships (24 percent), statewide elective offices (30.3 percent), and state legislatures (32.7 percent).

The numbers are particularly concerning because, according to the Census Bureau, women make up the majority of the U.S. population at 50.5 percent.

“I am very proud to be the mayor of Leesburg and very proud to have succeeded a female mayor. That being said no one should be satisfied until women hold at least 50 percent of municipal and legislative office seats nationwide,” Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk says. “However, I am heartened to see that Virginia places 12th in terms of its representation of women in municipal offices.”

“For almost the entirety of the last quarter-century, the Town of Leesburg has been led by a female mayor, in addition to a female vice mayor on several occasions. We as a community should continue to embrace female representation in politics as we are just as significant of a population, and as powerful of a voice, as our male colleagues. Our experiences as women are extremely beneficial in understanding and representing the needs and expectations of the community we serve,” Burk says.

Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross, a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors veteran who announced her retirement in December after 27 years in the seat, says there’s been a “reluctance” for women to run for office.

“There’s either a confidence level, or quite often, it’s the financial side. It’s the funding level,” Gross says. “Women view fundraising as an extremely difficult thing to do when you’re running for office. And I have had women tell me that there’s this ‘good old boys’ network out there, that’s way ahead of the women, which makes it very, very difficult. It can be done, I have proven it, but it can be daunting at the beginning.”

The situation doesn’t necessarily get any easier once women are in office, either. Gross has been involved in a number of national organizations, including President of the National Association of Regional Councils.

“And I actually had women on that board tell me that in their home counties, or their home regions, they actually were met with animosity from their other board members. Because a woman shouldn’t be in that position, ‘You women shouldn’t be here,’” Gross says.

She says she was told the same thing by a professor in college — that she had no business being there and was taking a job away from a man.

“I would love to have him see what I’m doing now,” Gross says. “I’ve had colleagues who were elected and just had a miserable time because the men on the board just made their lives holy hell.”

There are no easy fixes, but Gross does have some advice for other women who want to seek office.

“I’ve said it publicly that women are often their own worst enemy because they weren’t raised necessarily with the confidence that, yes, you can do this,” Gross says, noting that many girls are raised with the idea that running for office is “really not something that girls should do.”

“Or, ‘Do you really want to do this? Do you really want to expose yourself to all of this?’ And the answer has got to be: Yes. Because that’s what leadership requires,” Gross says.

“And you have to be able to compartmentalize, if you will, the personal you from the professional and political you. There is a difference. And you can protect yourself, you can build that little wall around you, but you have to know how to do it, and that takes some experience.”

But Gross adds that “sometimes it just takes plain old guts.”

Read the full Center for American Women and Politics report.

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