Melinda French Gates: Why I’m Focusing on Getting More Women In Public Office
In 1976, Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, known as the first lady of Tennessee politics, ran for office on the slogan “A woman’s place is in the House… and the Senate too.” That idea—that women deserve a role in making decisions, controlling resources, and shaping policies and perspectives—is at the center of my work as an advocate for women and girls. And it’s why I’m stepping up my investments in systems-wide efforts to build women’s political power.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, it was yet another reminder that we still live in a country where decisions are made for women instead of by them. Only one in three state legislators in the U.S. is a woman. At the federal level, it’s closer to one in four. In the House of Representatives, there are more men named “Mike” than women chairing committees. There are more than 16 million Black women in this country—and exactly zero in the United States Senate. There has never been a Black or Indigenous woman elected governor.
In a democracy, representation is a vital principle. But more than that, it’s the bedrock of good governance. While no one would claim that women are a monolith who support any one party or agenda, there is evidence that women govern differently, working more collaboratively across party lines and introducing legislation on issues that have historically gone unaddressed. That’s why I’m convinced that having more women at all levels of government will make government work better.
I’m also convinced there’s a realistic path to getting there. As a philanthropist, I’ve always been interested in catalytic philanthropy, areas where strategic investments of attention and resources can unlock outsized gains. When it comes to building women’s political power, my team at Pivotal Ventures and I believe one of those catalysts is state legislatures.
It’s not just that there are so many seats at the state level—more than 7000 of them—setting a broad stage for transformative progress. It’s also that state legislatures are powerhouses of American policymaking. They control $2 trillion per year in spending and write the laws that govern people’s day-to-day lives on issues ranging from voting to reproductive rights to schools.
What’s more, serving in state legislatures is often a launchpad to higher office. Half the women serving in Congress today previously served in statehouses. Electing more women to these seats and supporting them as they advance their legislative agendas deepens the bench of women qualified to serve at the highest levels of government—and can pay dividends for decades.