March is Women’s History Month, and as we celebrate the role women have played—and continue to play—in the United States, we also want to take the opportunity to highlight the women who are leading their states toward a more equitable future. While full gender parity across the highest elected state offices nationwide plods along, we do see slow but significant progress: even though just 12 of 50 states boast women governors at the helm, gubernatorial records were set in 2023.  

Political representation at every level of government matters. Women play integral roles in building strong communities, and when they run for office and are elected to lead, our democracy and our communities benefit. Yet, we also know that progress toward gender equity is more complicated than simply electing women to office. So, what have women governors accomplished for gender equity in their states so far?   

In her first 100 days, Governor Maura Healey (D-MA) took steps to protect and expand medication abortion access in the Bay State amid legal challenges to FDA regulations. In partnership with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Healey stockpiled a two-year supply of mifepristone and dedicated an additional $1 million from the Department of Public Health budget to help state-contracted providers administer mifepristone. The bulk order was facilitated within days and served as a model for other states seeking to shield medication abortion in their borders.  

Healey also negotiated with legislative leaders to boost child tax credits for caregivers and expressed a willingness to sign a salary transparency law, different versions of which passed the House and Senate last fall. The bills are stalled in a conference committee, awaiting a bicameral compromise before advancing to her desk. Healey’s latest budget proposal calls for $590 million in early education investments, including expanding low- and no-cost pre-K options for four-year-olds living in Gateway Cities, and an expansion of child care subsidies for families earning up to 85 percent of the state median income. An additional $475 million would go toward maintaining the Commonwealth Cares for Children grant program, sustaining significant investments from emergency federal funds with state dollars. The House and Senate, who control the purse strings, have yet to debate the Governor’s budget proposal, so it remains to be seen how much child care funding Healey can deliver to the commonwealth.  

In Oregon, Governor Tina Kotek (D-OR) also took quick action to safeguard access to mifepristone. She raised Healey’s two-year stockpile with a three-year bulk order in partnership with the Oregon Health and Science University. Kotek directed the state’s licensing boards to issue guidance clarifying that Oregon supports providers in continuing to provide mifepristone regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision. With an eye toward better meeting the needs of incarcerated women, Kotek assembled an Advisory Panel on Gender Responsive Practices in Corrections and signed into law legislation that establishes a doula services program for pregnant and postpartum individuals incarcerated at the state’s women’s prison. In response to child care needs, Kotek approved bills that created the state’s first refundable child tax credit, a Child Care Infrastructure Fund for grants, and reduced barriers for international early educators to enter the early learning workforce in Oregon.   

Arizona’s Governor Katie Hobbs (D-AZ) quickly earned the nickname “Veto Queen” for her work on the defensive against a Republican majority in the state legislature. In her first 100 days in office, Hobbs claimed the record for most vetoed bills in a single session at 63, and far surpassed that record when she wrapped up the session with a total of 143 vetoes. Anti-abortion and anti-trans bills found themselves dead on arrival on Hobbs’ desk, though the vast majority of her veto stamps thwarted attacks on election laws and the over-inflation of school choice programs.  

Incumbents Laura Kelly (D-KS), Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-NM), Janet Mills (D-ME), and Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) built upon their previous terms’ achievements. Governor Laura Kelly kickstarted her second gubernatorial term with an executive order establishing the Early Childhood Transition Task Force, which was charged with reviewing Kansas’ early childhood programs and developing a roadmap to create a cabinet-level agency solely focused on supporting youth. Throughout 2023, the Kelly administration has allocated more than $65 million to create nearly 6,000 new child care slots.  

In Maine, Governor Janet Mills expanded abortion access for all medically necessary cases, regardless of the stage of pregnancy. She also worked with the legislature to build compromise around the state’s nominal paid family and medical leave program. Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who is one of only two Latinas ever elected governor nationwide, signed into a law a bill protecting and expanding reproductive health and gender-affirming care in the state, making New Mexico a destination for care in the Southwest. Governor Gretchen Whitmer accelerated the deadline on her own promise to deliver pre-K for all of Michigan’s four-year-olds from 2026 to 2024.  

Women—and the women governors who represent us—are not a monolith, and not all the top women executives in government are “for the girls.” Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) and her administration just rolled back a nonbinary inclusionary measure that allowed drivers to mark “X” for their gender on driver’s licenses. Instead, she’s making it harder for residents in Arkansas to change their gender on their state IDs.  

Incumbent Governor Kristi Noem (R-SD) of South Dakota continues to defend the state’s near-total abortion trigger ban and signed a law further restricting medication abortion access, though the measure is not yet enforceable. Noem recently declared 2024 as the “Freedom for Life Year” in her State of the State address, insisting upon the importance of the first 1,000 days in a child’s life. Since her budget proposal in 2022 that allocated $100 million in federal emergency American Rescue Plan funds to support child care programs, Governor Noem has been happy to take credit for funding child care in her state with federal dollars. She has, however, firmly opposed direct state subsidies for child care, so families in South Dakota can’t expect the kind of sustainable investments needed to halt the child care crisis under Noem’s leadership. Last spring, Noem expanded paid family leave to all state employees at 100 percent pay for up to 12 weeks. Still, 79 percent of workers in South Dakota are not eligible for paid family leave, meaning most can’t even spend the first 12 weeks of their child’s life bonding with them. A meaningful government commitment to the first two years of early childhood development would at least prioritize quality child care and family bonding by securing paid family leave for all.  

Incumbent Governor Kim Reynolds (R-IA) of Iowa infamously signed into law “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban, prohibiting abortion care in nearly all cases. She follows in the footsteps of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL), who, in 2019, made abortion a felony in almost all cases, causing confusion and fear in her state of Alabama while Roe v. Wade still stood. Ivey also targeted young girls when she signed into law a bill prohibiting trans girls from participating on girls K-12 sports teams. 

Not all the glass ceilings shattered in state governor’s offices have yielded gender equity initiatives, but IWPR research shows that on an aggregate level, women’s presence in legislatures and other state-level elected offices is closely associated with better policies for women. Some women governors have laid the groundwork in states for expanding abortion access, sustainably funding child care programs, and extending paid family and medical leave to workers. Electing more women to the highest state offices could elevate those policies across the nation, as states are great labs for policy innovation, and interstate competition often fuels political momentum for policies that drive economic opportunity.  

Women’s History Month is a time to recognize and celebrate the achievements of women trailblazers who have boldly stepped into leadership roles in political spaces where women’s underrepresentation persists. It is also paramount to uplift leadership and policy action that is tried and tested to actually advance women and gender equity. In most states, governors serve four-year terms, and it remains to be seen the legacy these women will leave for their communities, who will be sent back to their post for another term, and how many more women may join the gubernatorial ranks in the next election cycle.