Preparedness Meets Opportunity: Women's Increased Representation in the New Jersey Legislature

Several studies on the descriptive representation of women in office have examined questions related to candidate emergence, often trying to explain why so few women run for office (e.g., Bledsoe and Herring 1990; Fox and Lawless 2004; Fulton et al. 2006; Lawless and Fox 2010; Sanbonmatsu, Carroll, and Walsh 2009). Another body of research has focused largely on how the political opportunities available to women affect their descriptive representation among elected officials, analyzing, for example, the effects of electoral arrangements, term limits, and quota systems (e.g., Carroll and Jenkins 2001; Dahlerup 2006; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994; Krook 2009; Rule and Zimmerman 1994). Far less often have the "supply" side and the "demand" side of women's political representation been investigated together in the same study in order to understand how they interact. Through a case study of women's representation in the legislature of one US state, New Jersey, we show not only that supply-side and demand-side factors are both important, but also that they can work together to produce a significant increase in the numbers of women serving in office.

This paper examines the factors that account for the rapid rise in the numbers of women legislators in New Jersey, focusing primarily on the time period from 2004 through 2011. Central to our analysis is the question of what it would take to bring about enduring change in a political system characterized by a strong, male-dominated party system like that found in New Jersey. 
After providing an historical overview of the relationship between political parties and women’s legislative representation, we turn to the post-2004 period, relying heavily on information from 21 in-depth interviews conducted with expert observers of New Jersey politics, several veteran women state legislators, several of the women legislators who entered office between 2007 and 2011, and the men who were the Republican and Democratic state party chairs during most of this period.
We characterize the increase during these years using the phrase, “preparedness meets opportunity.” Women were better positioned than ever before to run for office when an extraordinary set of circumstances created an unusual number of legislative openings and a climate favorable to the nomination of women by the political parties. Also important was the presence of critical actors who helped women take advantage of the situation. Nevertheless, our analysis shows that male dominance of the party system and control over nominations have not been broken; the structures and culture that historically perpetuated male dominance persist despite women’s recent gains.