Between September 2015 and August 2016, our research team at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University-New Brunswick conducted interviews with 83 of the 108 women who served in the 114th Congress. The information we gathered from over 40 hours of member interviews is outlined in our recent report, Representation Matters: Women in the U.S. Congress. Included among our findings are key insights from congresswomen that not only demonstrate why it matters that a diverse group of women hold elective offices, but also make the case that this form of political power is worth fighting for, whether on the campaign trail or within policymaking institutions.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told us, “I do know this. This is not for the faint of heart, and you really have to be ready to make the fight.” But she added, “It’s worth it. It’s necessary for our country.” She is right, and below are some useful observations from the other congresswomen we interviewed that further make the case for women’s political representation.
We hope you will draw from these “5 Reasons More Women Should Run for Office” to encourage women to consider candidacy, urge others to support women’s representation, and contribute to the work already being done to increase the numbers of women in elected office nationwide.
1. Public service provides significant opportunities for women - including the opportunity to bring issues to policy agendas that would not otherwise be there.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told us, “[Women members have made a difference by] raising issues that previously didn’t get the light of day.” Similarly, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) explained, “There are just issues that would not have reached the top of the agenda without women there pushing to make sure.” These insights are in line with existing research demonstrating the ways in which women, and specific groups of women legislators, bring distinct priorities to the legislative agenda. They also expand policy agendas, as Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) noted, “I’m saying that Democratic women have carried issues that men just didn’t pay attention to or that were not [even] considered issues.”
Diverse women prioritize a diverse set of issues, making the case for electing leaders that represent the pluralism among women. Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) provided one example of why this matters in agenda-setting:
“It’s a little bit different, because you know there are issues that disproportionately impact Latina women. So like our immigration policy and separating families, most white women don’t have to worry about that, but Latina women do. Most African American women don’t have to worry about that, but Latina women do if they have a family of mixed status. So there are certain issues that ... are unique to Latina women that—it is not to say that every white or black woman doesn’t experience that, I’m sure Caribbean immigrant families experience that, but it just disproportionately impacts Latinas. I hate when we say a certain issue is a woman’s issue because every issue is a woman’s issue, but certain policies disproportionately impact women, and I do feel like there are policies or areas, issues, that disproportionately impact Latina women in particular.”
Representative Alma Adams (D-NC) summarizes the importance of women’s policy advocacy most clearly in this excerpt: “I just want to reiterate that women need to be here, and they need to be here because everything impacts us and our families and our communities. And if we’re not here, then the issues that need to be talked about the most won’t be talked about. They won’t be addressed. You know, they’ll never get to the table. So we need to be...in the room, at the table, feet planted firmly under the table, so that we in fact have the kind of voice that we need to have...”
2. Women also bring distinct and diverse perspectives to legislative debates, often rooted in their own experiences.
Elected women don't just shed light on certain issues that might otherwise be ignored; they also contribute perspectives to legislative debates that otherwise might not be heard. Rooted in their own experiences as women, women bring diverse, credible, and authentic voices to policymaking.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-VT) explained: “Women’s life experiences are different from men’s. They’re not better. They’re not worse. But they are different. It is important for us to have people who have those experiences at the table so we can talk about those and we can respond to the challenges that half of the population in this country faces.” Some of those life experiences are related to caregiving, which remains disproportionately the responsibility of women in the U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) argued, “I think it is really important that people who are basically caregivers, that people who basically run our households, are the people who make decisions about what goes on in those households.”
Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) noted how her perspective as a woman contributes to policy debates: “[B]ecause I am a woman I do think that I look... at legislation...and policy through the prism of ‘How does this impact women?’” But congresswomen rarely view policies through a singular lens of gender. Instead, they bring the plurality of their life experiences and identities to policy engagement.
For example, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) shared, “I find that representatives all are a product of our own experiences, too.... that does influence [us] at times because our experiences often drive our passions.... [I have] a child with special needs. And that has... not only introduced me to the disabilities community, but... I want to make sure that I’m giving... those issues a priority in Congress.”
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told us, “So in all of history prior to there being an out gay or lesbian person in the Senate, when they either discussed advancing civil rights for the LGBT community or... how to prevent the advancement, ... all of those discussions have occurred in rooms without voice from the LGBT community participating. And now they’re happening in rooms where I’m present and can represent a perspective.”
When Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) was present in debates over immigration reform on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, she also brought a distinct perspective. “ I would say mine was the only voice in [the Judiciary] Committee that spoke for the importance of family unity [in debates over immigration reform],” she told us. “And so I brought [that voice], ...not only as a woman but also as an immigrant. And this is why it is important to have minority representation on all of these committees. Because you have different life experiences, different perspectives, and women certainly bring that to any committee they are on.”
Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) explained that her life experience helps to challenge stereotypes that often pervade policymaking about individuals who rely on public assistance. “... I lived on food stamps and public assistance, single mother and all that stuff, which...is kind of normal for a lot of women living in this country,” she told us, adding, “And so I bring, like other black women bring and other women of color bring, whatever they went through and the barriers they faced, [and I’m] trying to knock down some of those to make things better for everybody.”
3. Women act as a voice for the voiceless, using their power as elected officials to advocate for those who are too often ignored in the halls of power.
The women on whose behalf Representative Lee (D-CA) speaks are among those populations that are often voiceless in policymaking institutions. Our interviews indicate that women – across parties, backgrounds, and chambers – are particularly motivated to give voice to underrepresented groups in their legislative work.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) explained, “In general I feel that it’s really important to be a voice for people who don’t feel anybody is listening to them... [W]hat... started me in politics to begin with is when I had a state legislator tell me I couldn’t make a difference because I was just a mom in tennis shoes. I thought, ‘Who are you to say that to me? Moms in tennis shoes have just as much right to be heard.’ So I’m always super sensitive to people who feel their voices aren’t heard or aren’t important because they are, and I want to speak out for them.”
Representative Ann Wagner (R-MO) shared her philosophy of service, “Our mission statement... centers around... serving a cause greater than one’s self... It talks about giving voice to the voiceless, and how important that is, and how we have to remember that’s why we’re put here in this legislative role... You can’t solve every challenge through legislation, but there are things we can do.”
Those things include “expanding opportunity and freedom” and “[recognizing] the dignity and worth of every person,” according to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), who added, “I think that part of the legacy of women in Congress is not only the promotion of women in a large percent of our population here, but how we expand the opportunity for everybody.”
4. Elected women change the face of political leadership and use their positions to encourage and empower other women.
Often the beneficiaries of inspiration and support from women who came before them, congresswomen discuss "paying it forward" as an opportunity – and responsibility – that comes with their public service. As Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) told us, “We have...an opportunity to try to be role models for women and men in our states and in the country and [to] try and change the mindset about women and girls’ thinking about running for office.” Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) said that being a role model for women is something that she’s “taken to heart.” “I’m constantly meeting with young women who reach out to our office,” she explained, “Whether they’re from the district or they get in contact from across the country, to encourage them to step up to the plate and add their voices to the conversation.”
That work pays off, as multiple congresswomen told us – detailing stories in which they were reminded of how powerful it is for young people, especially, to see that elected leaders are not only older white men. Representative Joyce Beatty (D-OH) shared her own realization of this power: “So I am a female of color, how does that make a difference? It makes a difference when little African American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress.... I never thought as a little girl that I would be sitting in the United States Congress. You know I was just hoping I would graduate from high school and get a job and be a good citizen, because I’m first-generation college. And so now to be able to sit there and vote on the most important issues that are before us and that run this country, and to go back home and sit in the classroom or to sit in the neighborhood center and be able to honestly say, ‘Somebody in this room—lots of you— can do this and yet do greater things.’ Then when they turn on the TV and they see a Rob in Kelly from the same district and state as the President of the United States, or they see a person from New York who sits on Energy and Commerce that is under 50 years of age and is an African American female, [or] when they see somebody from the Virgin Islands that grew up from the islands and came here and went to an Ivy League law school, and private boarding schools, they go, ‘Wow. I too can be that.’”
5. Women get things done, even in today’s polarized political environment.
CAWP research on state legislators shows that the primary motivation for women to run for office is a desire to make policy change. It’s no surprise, then, that women look at today’s politics and are deterred; when the narrative and evidence of gridlock and unproductivity prevail, women will look to other sites to make a difference. But the congresswomen we spoke with gave us many examples of accomplishment despite the polarized political environment in which they work. They emphasized that women’s results-oriented approach is effective in Congress, demonstrating the need for more women to run for and serve in elected offices at all levels.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) pointed out, “When you look at the things that have gotten done, the majority of them had at least one woman leading [them].” She credited this to women’s orientation to public service: “I think we are much more focused on solving problems and getting things done and less focused on the trappings of power, our name on a bill, all of the ego trappings with the job.” Many of her female colleagues agreed. For example, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said, “Guys have a tendency to seek a win, and we seek a win-win to get to a solution.” She even referred to elected women as “the leaders of the Get-‘er-Done Caucus.”
Few would argue against having more members of the “Get-‘er-Done Caucus” in today’s Congress, and in legislative bodies nationwide. Women are poised to fill those roles.
The 2016 election cycle broke relatively little ground for women’s representation in Washington. Aside from Hillary Clinton’s failure to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling in the presidential election race, the number of women set to serve in the 115th Congress next January remains stagnant. Among the Republican majority, women actually lost seats in the House of Representatives. While the newly re-elected Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has stated that 2017 was going to be about “doing big things for our country, ” it is worth considering the role that Republican women officeholders will play as policy makers and messengers as the Party hopes to enact significant reforms now that Republicans also control the White House.
Based on two important measures of clout, the number of women serving in party leadership and as committee chairs, Republican women’s voice as leaders in formulating in those “big things” promised by the Speaker may be muted. However, their voice as messengers to articulate the Party’s vision may be more prominent as Republicans continue to grapple with expanding their base of voters to include more women.
Come January, Republican women will again serve in the majority but in slightly smaller numbers than they did in the previous Congress with two fewer members. Twenty-one Republican women will serve in the House. Kelly Ayotte, the sole Republican woman senator up for re-election in this cycle, lost her race which brings the total number of Republican women senators serving in the institution to five. Republican women in both chambers account for less than 10 percent of their party’s caucuses. By comparison, Democratic women members significantly outnumber their Republican counterparts and, by virtue of the party’s minority status with fewer Democratic members, account for a much larger percentage, about a third, of their party’s caucuses in each chamber. Further, Republican women’s underrepresentation is also seen by their general absence in party leadership and as committee chairs.
Republican party leadership in the House and Senate is almost entirely comprised of white men. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was renamed as House Republican Conference Chair while Mimi Walters was named as sophomore representative. Of the nearly two dozen House committees, only two Republican women will serve as chairs; Virginia Foxx will chair the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Susan Brooks will chair the Committee on Ethics. Two Republican women will chair Senate committees – Lisa Murkowski on Energy and Natural Resources, and Susan Collins on Aging. There are no Republican women in formal Senate leadership positions, although in the 114th Congress Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed four “counsels” to broaden Senate leadership, two of whom were women.
Previously, Republicans were open in recognizing the importance of women leaders. Indeed, in 2014, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers stated, “Messengers are important, and having a broad spectrum of members who represent that background – youth, women, Hispanics, every walk of life – is important.” More recently, however, Republicans have not only rejected the idea of gender diversity within the Party as a goal but dismissed it as “identity politics” embraced by the losing Democrats. Republican pollster and Trump campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, agreed with Bernie Sanders who recently called on Democrats to move away from “identity politics.” Sanders advocated for a focus on progressive issues instead.
Republican women seeking elective office may have cause to downplay their gender on the campaign trail. Danielle Thomsen finds that Republican women candidates are disadvantaged in contested primaries as they are incorrectly perceived to be less conservative than their male primary opponents. Moreover, in the important area of campaign fundraising, Melody Crowder-Meyer and Rosalyn Cooperman find that Democratic and Republican donors differentially prioritize using money to increase the number of women representatives. Karin Kitchens and Michele Swers find that campaign finance networks available to Republican women candidates, particularly in primaries, is significantly underdeveloped. For their part, rank and file Republicans express a similar disinterest in gender diversity. In an October 2016 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, a majority of Americans (58 percent) believe the country would be better off if there were more women serving in public office. However, the support for women serving differs significantly based on respondents’ party affiliation. More than three quarters (77 percent) of Democrats agree but fewer than four in ten (37 percent) of Republicans – including only 42 percent of Republican women – agree that the country would be better off with more women holding public office. In other words, if anyone is bothered by the low profile of Republican women members in the Republican-led Congress, it’s probably not Republicans.
And yet despite these myriad challenges, Republican women members will likely serve an important and highly visible role in promoting the Party’s message in the 115th Congress, particularly in articulating components of the House Republicans’ “Better Way” vision and Republican Party policy messages more broadly. Melissa Deckman’s work on Tea Party women illustrates how conservative women frame conservative issues in women-friendly ways. For example, women leaders on the right argue that cutting taxes is good for American families as it allows them to spend money as they best see fit; or, they maintain that lowering the national debt safeguards future generations. As congressional Republicans work to address policy priorities like replacing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, or overhauling immigration regulations, Republican women members are particularly well suited to articulate why these policies will benefit American families.
In the 2016 election, Republicans performed exceptionally well with white working class men and women. Even so, the Party faces challenges in appealing to women voters, particularly college-educated women and women of color, as it becomes an even whiter, mostly male party in its leadership. In the 115th Congress there will be fewer Republican women members than in Congresses past. Despite the Party’s rejection of identity politics, party leaders will likely rely heavily on these Republican women members to articulate a policy vision that is both women and family friendly if they wish to remain in control of Congress.
The upcoming resignation of Speaker John Boehner created a vacancy on the Republican House leadership ladder, with the anticipated succession of current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the speakership. Would this be the moment to add another woman to the largely male team? Apparently not, with the most logical choice, current GOP Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) choosing to keep her current role rather than seeking to succeed McCarthy. That left no space for Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), who had expressed interest in the conference chair spot if McMorris Rodgers had run for Majority Leader.
Leadership roles in the 114th Congress are largely the province of men on both sides of the aisle. In the Senate, Patty Murray (D-WA) is Democratic Conference Secretary, and the only woman chairing a committee is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. On the House side, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), still the only woman ever to serve as Speaker, has led her party in the House for more than 12 years and remains Democratic Leader. McMorris Rodgers is the sole woman in the GOP leadership, and just one woman, Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-MI) chairs a House committee.
Looking at the numbers of women in each party’s caucus, it’s clear that the GOP has far fewer women, both numerically and proportionately, than the Democrats. Women make up almost a third of the Democratic members of Congress, but less than one eighth of the Republicans.
Total Democrats (%)
Total Republicans (%)
This means that when openings arise, Republicans don’t have a deep bench from which to choose a woman to step up to the plate. And while it’s far too early for meaningful numbers, CAWP’s list of potential candidates for 2016 congressional elections already shows similarly disproportionate numbers building (perhaps because the tally so far includes mostly incumbents and fewer challengers or seekers of open seats).
While many argue that the gender of candidates and officeholders is insignificant, CAWP has decades of research demonstrating varied ways in which women from both parties change both the process of politics and the issues that reach the public docket. Although the contentious clamor of the presidential race makes 2016 seem very close indeed, and although some filing deadlines for 2016 races are as early as November or December of 2015, there’s still time for women to step forward to run – if not for Congress, certainly for state legislatures and local offices. That’s the only route to building the numbers so women are in place and ready to claim leadership roles in the future.
When the 114th Congress convenes today, 104 women (76D, 28R) will serve among the 535 members, representing 19.4% of the new Congress. Four more women will serve as non-voting delegates to the House from American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. Twenty women (14D, 6R) will serve in the Senate (20%) and 84 women (62D, 22R) will serve in the House (19.3%). At the close of the 113th Congress, one hundred women (77D, 23R) held office, including 20 women (16D, 4R) in the Senate and 80 women (61D, 19R) in the House. Before Representative Alma Adams’ (NC-12) victory in November’s special election, 99 women (76D, 23R) served in the 113th Congress. The net increase in women’s representation is five, or 0.9%, since the fall election.
Women in the 114th Congress, by Chamber
Just under one-third of women members in the 114th Congress are women of color. A record 32 women of color (29D, 3R) will serve in the House, making up 38% of women in that chamber. In the Senate, however, Mazie Hirono (D-HI) remains the only woman of color among 20 female members (5%). Thirty women of color (28D, 2R) served in the 113th Congress before November, increasing by one (31: 29D, 2R) with Adams’ special election.
Among all women who will serve, 14 women are newly elected to their chambers. Two women (2R) are newcomers to the U.S. Senate: former Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joni Ernst (R-IA). Twelve women (7D, 5R) are newcomers to the U.S. House: Martha McSally (R-AZ); Norma Torres (D-CA); Mimi Walters (R-CA); Gwen Graham (D-FL); Debbie Dingell (D-MI); Brenda Lawrence (D-MI); Alma Adams (D-NC); Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ); Kathleen Rice (D-NY); Elise Stefanik (R-NY); Mia Love (R-UT); Barbara Comstock (R-VA). The new delegate is Stacey Plaskett (D-VI). Nearly half of the new members of the House, 5 of 12 (41.7%), are women of color: Adams, Lawrence, Love, Torres, and Watson Coleman. Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) is also among the new Black women in Congress. Utah’s Love is the first Black Republican woman to serve in Congress. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), age 30, is the youngest woman to serve in Congress, taking over that title from former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was 31 when she took office in 1973.
New Women in Congress, by Chamber and Congress
States Four states – IA, NJ, UT, and VA – will go from no women representing them in the 113th Congress to one woman in their congressional delegations in 2015. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) is the first woman ever to serve in Congress from Iowa. Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Mia Love (R-UT) are the first Black women to represent their states in Congress. Representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is the first woman to serve in Virginia’s congressional delegation in two decades. Two states – PA and LA – will go from having one woman representing them in the 113th Congress to no women in their congressional delegations in 2015. They will join 11 other states that continue to have all-male delegations in Washington: AR, DE, GA, ID, KY, MS, MT, OK, RI, SC, and VT. Among these states, MS and VT have never had women in their congressional delegations; the others have had women in the past. Parties As the Republicans take over both chambers of Congress, women represent 9.3% of all majority members (38 of 301). Women are 11.1% of all Republicans in the Senate (6 of 54) and just 8.9% of all Republicans in the House (22 of 247) in 2015. Despite Republican gains overall in the 2014 elections, Republican women remain a small percentage of their congressional caucuses. In the 113th Congress, Republican women were 8.2% of all Republican members, including 8.9% of Republican Senators and 8.1% of Republican Representatives. Democratic women, on the other hand, represent one-third of all Democratic members of Congress in 2015 (76 of 234). Women are 30.4% of all Democrats in the Senate (14 of 46) and 33% of all Democrats in the House (62 of 188). In the 113th Congress, Democratic women were 30.3% of all Democratic members, including 30.2% of Democratic Senators and 30.3% of Democratic Representatives.
Women in Party Caucuses, by Chamber and Congress
One of the most circulated “women’s stories” of this week’s election has been the celebration of reaching 100 women in Congress. Because Alma Adams (D-NC) was elected in both her special election and general election contest, she will be sworn in to the 113th Congress next week and cause the number of women in the House to move from 79 to 80, and thus the overall number of women in Congress to reach 100 from 99. Reaching this marker is no small feat, as those of us who study and work with women in politics know. Just over two decades ago, in the 102nd Congress, only one-third (32) as many women served. Even more, it was not until Shirley Chisholm’s election to the House in 1968 that a Black woman served in Congress. Alma Adams becomes the 32nd Black women to serve in Congress, and was one of four new Black women members elected to the 114th Congress on Tuesday. In fact, women of color will make up over one-third of the House women’s caucus in 2015, as they have in the 113th Congress.
First, those 100 women in Congress serve in a 535-member body (combining House and Senate). Doing the math yields a number far less worthy of celebration: 18.7%. Even with 100 members, women are less than one-fifth of Congress, despite being over 50% of the U.S. population. Second, we hit 100 women in Congress on Tuesday from a starting point of 99. Even if all remaining races with women candidates break in their favor, only 105 women will serve in the 114th Congress. That’s a net increase of six in the best case scenario for women, indicating a pace of progress that’s hardly impressive. Third, even among new members of Congress, women remain seriously underrepresented. According to the latest numbers of new members of the 114th Congress (with some races still undecided), women will be 19% of the freshman class. This isn’t terribly surprising when women make up a similarly low proportion of nominees going into Election Day. I don’t point out these statistics to discount the success of the women who put themselves forward for congressional offices this year. They are on the front lines of progress, doing what’s needed to disrupt the relatively stagnant trends I note here. For example, our two new women senators are the first women elected to the U.S. Senate from their states. Among the new women in the House, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Mia Love (R-UT) are the first Black women from their states to serve in Congress. They are joined by female trailblazers at other levels of office this year, from Gina Raimondo’s election as the first woman governor of Rhode Island to the addition of 10 new Republican women in statewide elected executive offices nationwide. Rhode Island’s newly-elected Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is the first Latina elected statewide in all of the northeast, Evelyn Sanguinetti (Illinois) was elected as the nation's first Latina Lieutenant Governor, and Maura Healey will become the first openly LGBT person to serve as a state’s Attorney General next year. We should not overlook or reduce the accomplishments of these women, but I raise the concerns above to ensure that the narrative of women’s success is not so overstated by one statistic that it yields complacency. We can all take a minute to celebrate this marker of women’s progress, and more importantly the women who’ve marked it, but let’s also note where 100 falls short and what we can do to move well beyond it in elections to come.
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2014, 18 (11D, 7R) women are nominees for open U.S. House seats, compared to the record high of 39 (26D, 13R) women running for open seats in 1992. As the charts below show, women have fallen short of making history as candidates, nominees, or open seat nominees in either major political party this year. However, while the number of female nominees dropped between 2012 and 2014 for Democratic women House candidates, there was a slight increase, from 48 to 50 nominees, among Republican women candidates, with the Louisiana race still pending.Women in the 114th Congress
- AZ-2: Republican Martha McSally, if elected, will be the first Republican woman ever elected to Congress from Arizona.
- IA-3: Democrat Staci Appel, if elected, will be the first woman ever elected to the U.S. House from Iowa. Iowa is one of four states (DE, IA, MS, VT) that has never sent a woman to Congress.
- NJ-12: Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman, if elected, will be the first Black woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. She will also be the first woman in New Jersey’s congressional delegation since 2003.
- NY-21: Republican Elise Stefanik, if elected, will be the youngest woman ever sworn in to Congress at age 30. The youngest women to be sworn in to date were 31 years old.
- UT-4: Republican Mia Love, if elected, will be the first Black Republican woman to be elected to Congress. She will also be the first Black woman, and only the fourth woman, to ever serve in Utah’s congressional delegation.
- VA-10: Republican Barbara Comstock, if elected, will be the first woman in Virginia’s congressional delegation since 2009.