Just under a month ago, Ohio State Representative Emilia Sykes filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Public Safety for over two years of disparate treatment by security officials at the Statehouse. More specifically, Representative Sykes – one of ten Black women in the Ohio state legislature – cited heightened scrutiny at security checkpoints and direct comments from security officials that she doesn’t “look like a legislator.” A citizen in Oregon seemed to struggle with the same issue this week when she called the police on Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum– the only Black woman in the Oregon House – while she was canvassing a neighborhood in her district for re-election.
Yesterday I filed a complaint w/ the Ohio Dept of Public Safety about repeated scrutiny & questioning by Troopers & Statehouse security. No longer can my race, gender, age, or any other characteristic subject me to differential treatment as I'm serving my community. #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/WkQBPYFk5o— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018
These recent cases reveal the stubborn and biased expectations of political leadership as old, White, and male. Those expectations are deeply rooted in the foundations of our political (and social) institutions, which were built for and by White men, but are reinforced by an indolence or even unwillingness to reimagine political leadership in ways that expand access to those historically excluded from officeholding.
In addition to age, citizenship, and residency requirements for holding federal office, state constitutions established requirements for candidacy and officeholding based on religious belief, educational attainment, and property ownership for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. These formal sites for exclusion from the political system were bolstered by informal modes of exclusion with disparate effects on women and people of color, some which persist to present day (think, for example, of the costs of campaigning and/or the role of “insider” networks in candidate recruitment, endorsement, and funding, to say nothing of the physical and emotional risks of running for office in racist and sexist environments). It’s little surprise, then, that of the 12,249 individuals that have served in Congress to date, just 322 (2.6%) have been women and 61 (0.5%) have been women of color.
Even for the women who have fought successfully for inclusion into our political institutions, efforts to exclude or marginalize them have continued. In the documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, Representative Shirley Chisholm (NY) – the first Black woman in Congress – describes being repeatedly heckled by a White, male colleague who couldn’t believe that they earned the same salary. While she successfully confronted him to stop his behavior, Chisholm’s experience reflects the unwillingness of some to accept changes in the allocation of political power.
More than three decades letter, Representative Linda Sánchez (CA) entered Congress as one of just seven Latinas in the 108th Congress and the only Latina under 40 years old. In an interview for our forthcoming book on the impact of women in Congress, Representative Sánchez described a situation strikingly similar to Representative Sykes’ interactions with Ohio Statehouse security.
Representative Sánchez recounted being stopped repeatedly at security checkpoints in the Capitol to show her member identification, despite wearing her member pin and even after multiple instances of proving herself to be an elected representative. Describing how this felt, she told us, “When you are walking with male colleagues and the male colleagues are waved through and they’re stopping you, the subtle message that they are sending is that these people belong here and you don’t.”
Like Representative Sykes, Representative Sánchez took action. First, she called out one of the security guards for reinforcing norms of who should or does hold congressional office, telling them, “You know, White men are not the only members of Congress. There are women who are members. There are Hispanic and Black members too.” Then she complained directly to the Sergeant at Arms, who warned members of his team not to question her credentials again. When we interviewed Representative Sánchez, she was unconvinced that new women members were not subject to the same skepticism, but her efforts pushed some inside the institution to revise their own expectations of political leadership.
Representative Sykes has gone further in her response to heightened scrutiny, launching #WeBelongHere last month as a forum in which Black women in elected office, government, policy, public service can share their stories of bias and extra scrutiny on the job. As its name reflects, the initiative is itself an assertion of Black women’s belonging within institutions from which they have long been excluded.
Like @EmiliaSykesOH I've been questioned when someone *thinks* I don't look like a lawmaker. But I was elected just like anyone else. Black women have the capacity and credentials to do anything. #WeBelongHere in Congress, and everywhere else. pic.twitter.com/1yyb3IMwqa— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 19, 2018
Like Chisholm, Sánchez, and Sykes, women nationwide are standing up for themselves against forces that would ignore or erase their presence in political institutions. But the work cannot fall only on those who are challenging the status quo to prove that they belong. It’s on all of us to not only accept, but also celebrate and promote the diversity of political leadership. It’s on all of us to question our own biases and rethink images and conceptions ingrained in our psyche about who is meant to lead. And, finally, it’s on all of us to recognize that the scrutiny and surveillance of women and people of color are rooted in racist and sexist norms that founded American political institutions without them in mind.
Today, while White men are still overrepresented at every level of political office, 1,876 women, 456 women of color, and 277 Black women serve in state legislatures nationwide; 107 women are voting members of Congress, including 38 women of color; 72 women hold statewide elected executive office, including 6 women governors and 8 women of color; and nearly 300 women are mayors in cities with populations over 30,000. There is much progress left to make in achieving a more representative democracy for women and communities of color, but these data make clear that women across racial and ethnic groups belong in positions of political power. It’s up to everyone else to get on board.
Media reports frequently confuse the women's vote and the gender gap, actually reporting on the women’s vote but calling it the gender gap. To clarify: the gender gap in voting is the difference between the proportions of women and men who support a given candidate, generally the leading or winning candidate. It is the gap between the genders, not within a gender. It is also not the aggregate of differences within both genders (e.g. women +10 Democrat and men +10 Republican ≠ 20 point gender gap). Here is how to calculate the gender gap in vote choice or preference:
[% Women for Leading or Winning Candidate] – [% Men for Leading or Winning Candidate] = Gender Gap
The women's vote describes the division in women’s support for major party candidates in any given race. It is the percentage-point advantage that one candidate has over the other among women voters – that is, the difference in women’s support for the Democratic and Republican candidates.
[% Women for Leading Party’s Candidate] – [% Women for Trailing Party’s Candidate] = Women's Vote
This distinction is important because even when women and men favor the same candidate, they usually do so by different margins, resulting in a gender gap. For example, we frequently see a gender gaps even in races where the women’s vote breaks for the Republican - i.e., where more women voters prefer the Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate.
Why Women’s Votes Matter
- Women vote in higher numbers than men and have done so in every election since 1964. In 2016, 9.9 million more women than men voted. Women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980. In 2016, 63.3% of eligible female adults went to the polls, compared to 59.3% of eligible male adults. Even in midterm elections, when voter turnout is lower among men and women, women vote in higher numbers and at higher rates than men.
- More women than men register to vote. Some 83.8 million women were registered to vote in 2016, compared to 73.8 million men.
- There has been a gender gap in every presidential election since 1980. In the 2016 election, men were 11 percentage points more likely than women to vote for Donald Trump (52% of men vs. 41% of women), according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research.
- There also has been a gender gap in congressional voting in every recent midterm election. In 2014, there was a 10-point gender gap, with 58% of men compared to 48% of women voting for the Republican candidate in their district. In 2010 there was a 6-point gender gap, with 57% of men compared to 51% of women voting for the Republican candidate in their district. In 2006, there was a 4-point gender gap, with 56% of women and 52% of men voting for the Democratic candidate in their district.
The 2018 election has been widely touted as the next “Year of the Woman.” The number of women seeking congressional office is indeed at an all-time high, with 468 women running for the U.S. House and 51 running for the U.S. Senate. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, these figures well surpass the previous records of 40 female Senate candidates who ran in 2016 and 298 female House candidates who ran in 2012.
Yet as Kelly Dittmar wrote last week, women are still less than one quarter—24%—of all major party House candidates running in 2018, up from 18% in 2016. And Democratic women are the real drivers of the surge in female candidates in 2018: women are 33% of all Democratic candidates but only 14% of all Republican candidates. Many parallels have been drawn to previous election cycles, but how does the number of women candidates in 2018 look over a longer time horizon?
I collected data on U.S. House candidates from 1980 to 2014 to examine historical and partisan changes in the number of female candidates on the ballot over the last three decades. The tables below include all major party primary candidates from 1980 to 2014, with breakouts for Democrats and Republicans.
It is clear that the number of women candidates has increased steadily over time. The percentage of female primary candidates is four times higher in 2018 than it was in 1980. What is more, the six point increase in the percentage of women candidates compared to the previous year—18% in 2016 to 24% in 2018—is larger than that in any other year during this period. The second largest increases in the percentage of female candidates were 3 points in 1992 and 2012.
As Dittmar noted, much of the current surge in women candidates has been fueled by Democratic women. But it hasn’t always been this way. Throughout the 1980s, women made up relatively equal proportions of Democratic and Republican primary candidates, hovering around 10% in both parties.
The first significant change was in 1992, popularly dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” when the number of Democratic women primary candidates doubled from the previous election and the percentage of women candidates increased by four points. Yet Democratic gains did not end there. The proportion of female Democratic candidates has increased slowly but steadily since then. These small, incremental gains are what differentiate women in the Democratic Party from women in the Republican Party.
To be sure, the proportion of women in Republican primaries has increased—in fact, more than doubled—during this period, from 6% in 1980 to 14% in 2018. However, the trend has mostly been one of stagnation. In my research, I have shown how the Republican women in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s were virtually all ideological moderates who are no longer in office today. The complete replacement of moderates had important implications for the representation of Republican women in particular.
Unlike the Democratic Party, which both retained and added new women to their caucus, the Republican women in Congress today are almost an entirely new crop of members. Of the 23 Republican women in the U.S. House, only 2 were elected before 2000, and one of them—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL)—is retiring this year.
A longer time horizon helps us to put the 2018 figures in perspective and consider the effects for women’s representation and female political engagement more generally. Scholars have been cautious about whether this surge in female candidates will result in the election of more women to office, primarily because many of them are running against incumbents or in districts that favor the other party. Yet all agree that this year is a historic one for women candidates, and the data shown here provide a new window into how the changes we are seeing this year are indeed different from those in previous election cycles.
Danielle Thomsen is an Assistant Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is the author of Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates.
In order to tell an accurate story of women’s political outcomes in November, it’s essential that we demonstrate the empirical nuances and complexities of women’s candidacies before then. Therefore, at this midway point in the primary season whereby 26 states have held primary election contests, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University has analyzed the success of and prospects for women candidates for congressional and statewide executive offices.
Below are five key data points by which we can evaluate how women are faring with necessary attention to historical precedent, partisan differences, racial and ethnic diversity, and general election competitiveness.
For regularly updated data on women’s candidacies and historical information on women running for office, see CAWP’s Election Watch. In addition, follow Gender Watch 2018, a project of CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, for real-time analyses of gender dynamics in election 2018.
1. Record levels of women are running for Congress and governor.
The numbers of women who have filed as candidates for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and governor have each surpassed previous highs.
- U.S. House: As of June 18th, 468 women have filed as candidates for the U.S. House, up from a previous record of 298 women candidates set in 2016. While Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House have surpassed their previous high of 190 (set in 2012) to 350 today, Republican women candidates for the U.S. House are just short of their record of 128 (set in 2010); as of June 18th, 118 Republican women have filed for candidacy for the House.
- U.S. Senate: As of June 18th, 51 (29D, 22R) women have filed as candidates for the U.S. Senate, up from a previous record of 40 women candidates set in 2016. Both Democratic and Republican women have already surpassed previous highs for Senate candidacies; the previous high was 28 (set in 2016) for Democrats and 17 (set in 2010) for Republicans.
- Governor: As of June 18th, 61 (40D, 21R) women have filed as candidates for governor, up from a previous record of 34 women candidates set in 1994.
With nominations decided in about half of all states, we have not yet surpassed record numbers of nominations for women candidates at any level of office. Follow CAWP’s candidate summary to track nomination records broken in 2018.
2. But women are still one-quarter or less of all congressional and statewide executive candidates in 2018.
Women are 25.4% of all statewide executive candidates (including governor) who have already competed for major party nominations in election 2018; they are 30.7% of Democratic and 19.9% of Republican candidates that have competed in all states where primary elections or conventions for statewide executive offices have been held.
Among only candidates for governor, women are 23.3% of those candidates who have already competed for major party nominations in election 2018; they are 25.3% of Democratic and 20.9% of Republican candidates that have competed in all states where primary elections or conventions for governor have been held.
Women are 16.7% of U.S. Senate candidates who have already competed for major party nominations in election 2018; they are 24.4% of Democratic and 11.8% of Republican candidates that have competed in all 26 primary states and in Utah’s party conventions.
Women are 22.7% of all filed U.S. House candidates for major party nominations in states where nominations have already occurred; they are 31.2% of Democratic and 12.2% of Republican candidates for nomination in all 26 primary states and in Utah’s party conventions.
With just 4 states left to certify primary candidates, women are 23.9% of all major party filed U.S. House candidates in election 2018. In the same states in 2016, women were 18.1% of all major party candidates on primary ballots. In 2018, women are 32.8% of all Democratic and 13.8% of all Republican U.S. House candidates certified thus far; in the same states in 2016, women were 25.6% of all Democratic and 11.8% of all Republican U.S. House candidates on primary ballots.
3. Women are winning primary nominations at high rates among Democrats, but not higher than previous cycles.
There are many ways to evaluate women candidates’ success in this year’s primary elections, which means that various numbers have been circulating from different organizations and media outlets. Below, we have broken down candidate outcomes by level of office, party, and incumbency and then compared current win rates for women with success rates in previous election cycles.
Importantly, the previous election data encompasses all primaries while the 2018 data includes just those states that have already selected nominees via primary elections or conventions. We have excluded California from the U.S. House totals because there remain multiple undecided contests.
The win rates for women candidates in 2018 U.S. House primaries (excluding California) – overall and among non-incumbents only- is higher than men among Democrats, but not among Republicans. Still, women are just one-quarter of U.S. House nominees selected thus far in 2018. There are significant partisan differences in the pool of nominees; 41.5% of Democratic nominees and 8.2% of Republican nominees are women. Among only non-incumbent nominees, women are 49.3% of Democrats and 10.7% of Republicans. Moreover, Democratic women non-incumbents have won at a rate distinctly higher than their male and Republican female counterparts. Their success is not, however, unmatched historically; in previous election cycles, non-incumbent Democratic women House candidates have won at higher rates across all nominating contests.
The win rates of women candidates – Democrats, Republicans, or overall - have not surpassed previous levels of success for women running for the U.S. House. Importantly, as more women run – especially as non-incumbents and within the same primary contests, the number and proportion of women losing is likely to increase.
The win rates for women candidates in 2018 U.S. Senate primaries – overall and among non-incumbents only- is higher than men among Democrats, but not among Republicans. Still, women are just one-fifth of U.S. Senate nominees -31.3% of Democratic nominees and 7.7% of Republican nominees - selected thus far in 2018. Among non-incumbent nominees, however, women are 50% of Democrats and 0% of Republicans.
The win rates of women candidates – Democrats, Republicans, or overall – have not surpassed previous levels of success for women running for the U.S. Senate. Importantly, as more women run – especially as non-incumbents and within the same primary contests, the number and proportion of women losing is likely to increase.
The win rates for women candidates in 2018 gubernatorial primaries – overall and among non-incumbents only- is higher than men among Democrats, but not among Republicans. Still, women are just over one-quarter (28.1%) of all gubernatorial nominees selected thus far in 2018. There are significant partisan differences in the pool of nominees; 35.3% of Democratic nominees and 20% of Republican nominees are women. Among only non-incumbent nominees, women are 33.3% of Democrats and 11.1% of Republicans.
Moreover, Democratic women non-incumbents have won at a higher rate than their male and Republican female counterparts.
4. Increasing women’s representation in November is more complicated than securing nominations. Women will start from a deficit in U.S. House and gubernatorial seats, and many women nominees are running in states and districts that favor their opponents.
With 13 women incumbents not returning to the U.S. House, making gains in women’s congressional representation requires first replacing those lost seats. In addition, several incumbent congresswomen are in danger of being defeated.
- Republican Representative Barbara Comstock (VA-10) is in a contest currently rated as leaning Democrat; because her opponent is a woman, however, the seat will continue to be woman-held. Republican Representative Claudia Tenney (NY-22) is running in a district deemed a toss-up by Cook Political Report. Republican Representative Martha Roby (AL-02) is running in a safely Republican district, but was forced into a runoff to secure her party’s nomination for re-election.
- Among the incumbent women senators running for re-election this year, two Democrats are in contests currently deemed as toss-ups by Cook Political Report: Senators Claire McCaskill (MO) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND).
Of the 99 women who have secured major party nominations for the U.S. House (excluding California): 32 (23D, 9R) are running in districts that favor their party; 63 (57D, 6R) are running in districts that favor their opponents; and 4 (3D, 1R) are running in districts that are deemed toss-ups by Cook Political Report.
Among non-incumbent House nominees only, 57 of 69 (82.6%) Democratic women and 6 of 9 (66.7%) Republican women are running in districts that favor their opponents. In contrast, of the 12 non-incumbent women who are nominees in districts that favor their party, 9 (75%) are Democrats and 3 (25%) are Republicans.
Of the 6 women who have secured major party nominations for the U.S. Senate: 2 (1D, 1R) are running in districts that favor their party; 2 (2D) are running in districts that favor their opponents; and 2 (2D) are running in districts that are deemed toss-ups by Cook Political Report. Just one non-incumbent woman nominee for the U.S. Senate thus far is in a race deemed competitive for her; in Nevada, Jacky Rosen (D) is the nominee in a toss-up Senate contest.
Of the 9 women who have secured major party nominations for governor: 5 (2D, 3R) are running in contests that favor their party; 3 (3D) are running in contests that favor their opponents; and 1 (1D) is running in a contest that is deemed a toss-up by Cook Political Report.
5. The representation of women of color varies by level of office and stage of the electoral process (candidacy and nomination). While women of color are the majority of Democratic women nominees for governor thus far, there are no women of color nominees for the U.S. Senate to date. Women of color are about one-third of candidates and nominees for the U.S. House.
- Of the 468 women who filed as candidates for the U.S. House as of June 18th, 164 (35%) identify as women of color (129 are Democrats and 35 are Republicans): 72 identify as Black; 48 identify as Latina; 31 identify as Asian/Pacific Islander; 2 identify as Native American; and 11 identify as multiracial.
Of the 99 women who have secured major party nominations for the U.S. House already (excluding California), 31 (31.3%) are women of color (27 are Democrats and 4 are Republicans): 19 identify as Black; 6 identify as Latina; 3 identify as Asian/Pacific Islander; 1 identifies as Native American; and 2 identify as multiracial.
- 3 women of color nominees – all Democrats – are nominees in districts that favor their party, including the potential first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress (Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar) and the potential first Native American woman in Congress (Debra Haaland-NM).
- 43% of women of color major party candidates – compared to 45.4% of all women- have secured nominations in the states where primaries or conventions have already been held (excluding California). 34.9% of non-incumbent women of color candidates – compared to 39.6% of all women - for the U.S. House have been successful thus far.
- Of the 51 women who filed as candidates for the U.S. Senate as of June 18th, 11 (21.5%) identify as women of color (8 are Democrats and 3 are Republicans): 7 identify as Black; 1 identifies as Latina; 2 identify as Asian/Pacific Islander; and 1 identifies as multiracial.
- Of the 6 women who have already secured major party nominations for the U.S. Senate, none are women of color.
- Of the 61 women who filed as candidates for governor as of June 18th, 14 (23%) identify as women of color: 5 identify as Black; 3 identify as Latina; 4 identify as Asian/Pacific Islander; 1 identifies as Native American; and 1 identifies as multiracial. 
- Of the 9 women who have already secured major party nominations for governor, 4 (44.4%) are women of color (all Democrats). More specifically, of the 6 women Democratic nominees, 4 are women of color. If successful, Stacey Abrams (D-GA) would be the first Black woman governor in the U.S. If successful, Lupe Valdez (D-TX) and/or Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) would be the first Democratic Latina woman/en governor(s) in the U.S. Finally, Paulette Jordan (D-ID) is the first Native American woman nominee for governor in the U.S. and would also become the first Native American woman governor if successful this fall.
With 24 states left to select nominees, CAWP will be tracking women’s candidacies in real time at Election Watch and will offer insights into and analysis of gender dynamics in this year’s campaigns at Gender Watch 2018. Stay tuned.
 These data include withdrawn candidates in OH and CA who withdrew before the primary election but still appeared on the ballot.
 Real-time updates on CAWP’s Election Watch page include partial results from California, while we have excluded them here. This explains any discrepancy between numbers.
 Of the 468 women candidate who have filed for the U.S. House, racial identification remains unverified by CAWP for 25.
 Of the 51 women candidate who have filed for the U.S. Senate, racial identification remains unverified by CAWP for 3.
 Of the 61 women candidate who have filed for governor, racial identification remains unverified by CAWP for 2.
The underrepresentation of women in American politics cuts across racial and ethnic groups. As the table here shows, a significant gap exists for each racial and ethnic group between women’s representation in the U.S. population and their representation across levels of office.
However, the dearth of women of color has been historically stark and persistent in statewide elected executive and U.S. Senate offices. To date, just 5 (5D) women of color have served in the U.S. Senate, with three entering office in 2017. 33 (24D, 9R) women of color have ever served in statewide elected executive office, including just 2 (2R) women of color who have served as governors.
Even in the U.S. House, where women of color are 16.1% of Democratic members and 51% of female Democrats, there is significant progress left to be made. Today, 33 states have no women of color in their congressional delegations (11 states have no women at all), and 30 states have never sent a woman of color to Congress.
Will the 2018 election change these numbers? It’s too early to make accurate predictions of success in November, but we have our first cut at the racial and ethnic diversity in this year’s congressional and gubernatorial candidate pool. The data reflect trends similar to gender and racial disparities among officeholders:
- Women of color are proportionately represented among women running for the U.S. House, though women are underrepresented overall; and
- Women of color are underrepresented among women and among all candidates running for the U.S. Senate and governor.
In early results, our data show that the success rates of women primary candidates vary by race and office. Of particular note, black and white women have the highest win rates thus far in U.S. House races and women of color are 3 of 4 gubernatorial nominees selected as of May 23.
We break down the data (as of May 23, 2018) by level of office below, accounting for the diversity among major party women candidates of different racial groups as well as the types of races in which they are competing. These data include women who have already lost their primaries in order to count them among all of the women who have run for office this year. Our count of total candidates also includes a small number of women for whom we have no racial identification.[i]
|U.S. House||U.S. Senate||Governor|
Today, women of color are 40.5% of women members of the U.S. House and 7.8% of all members. Among all major party filed candidates for the U.S. House (36 states) this year, women of color are 34.3% of all 399 women candidates and 9.5% of all 1725 candidates (male and female).
- They are 35.5% of filed Democratic women and 11.3% of filed Democrats; 31% of filed Republican women and 4.1% of filed Republicans.
- Democratic women of color House candidates are more likely than White women to be incumbents; 22.6% of Democratic women of color versus 11% of white women Democrats are running as incumbents. 26.8% of Democratic Black women candidates filed for the U.S. House in 2018 are incumbents.
- Among Republican House candidates, however, 93.5% of women of color are non-incumbents compared to 78.7% of white women.
- Women of color are one-third of all women non-incumbent candidates, a slightly smaller proportion than they are of all candidates.
When likely candidates (not yet filed) are included, these numbers change little. Women of color are 34% of filed + likely women candidates. They are 35.8% of filed + likely Democratic women and 28.7% filed + likely Republican women.
Proportion of All Women Candidates for the U.S. House
Among all filed candidates for the U.S. House (36 states), white women are 60.7% of all women candidates and 14.3% of all candidates (male and female). By comparison, they are about 61% of women in the U.S. population and 32% of the total population. Today, white women are 59.5% of women members of the U.S. House and 11.5% of all House members. The proportion of White women increases only slightly (to 61.2%) when filed + likely candidates are included.
Women as a Proportion of All Candidates (Male and Female) Filed for the U.S. House (as of May 23, 2018)
In 13 primaries to date, 43.4% of women of color won nominations in U.S. House contests. 36.2% of women of color non-incumbents won major party House nominations. Black women have the highest win rate overall when incumbents are included; 55.6% of Black women candidates have secured nominations compared to 48% of White women, for example. Among non-incumbents, however, the win rate for black and white women is the same at 42.9% and lower for Latinas, asian/pacific islander, and multiracial women.
Success Rates for Women Candidates for the U.S. House (as of May 23, 2018)
Women of color were 32.3% of all women House nominees in 2016. They are 31.9% of women nominees selected already in 2018.
Women of color are 17.4% of women members of the U.S. Senate today. They are 25% of all 36 major party women candidates who have filed to run for the U.S. Senate this year (across the 36 states where filing deadlines have passed).
- They are 28.6% of filed Democratic women and 20% of filed Republican women.
- As of May 23, all women of color candidates who have filed for the U.S. Senate are non-incumbents. There is just one woman of color Senate incumbent up for re-election this year – Mazie Hirono (D-HI).
When likely candidates (not yet filed) are included, these numbers change little overall. Women of color are 22.2% of all 54 filed + likely women candidates. However, the representation of women of color among Republican women declines when likely candidates are included in these counts. Among all filed + likely candidates, women of color are 29% of filed + likely Democratic women and 13% filed + likely Republican women.
Proportion of All Women Candidates for the U.S. Senate
Today, white women are 82.6% of women members of the U.S. Senate. They are 69.4% of all women candidates who have filed to run for the U.S. Senate and 74.1% of all filed + likely women candidates for the U.S. Senate.
Success Rates for Women Candidates for the U.S. Senate (as of May 23, 2018)
In 13 primaries to date, none of the three women of color candidates for the U.S. Senate were successful. Of the 4 White women who have competed in Senate primaries thus far, 2 – including incumbent Deb Fischer (R-NE) – have secured nominations.
Women of color were 20% of all women Senate nominees in 2016. They are are 0 of 2 women nominees selected already in 2018.
Just 1 of 6 current women governors (16.7%) is a woman of color: Susana Martinez (R-NM). Women of color are 25.5% of all 47 major party women candidates who have filed for governor this year in the 24 states where filing deadlines for gubernatorial contests have passed.
- They are 35.7% of Democratic women and 10.5% of Republican women who have filed to run for governor.
- The only incumbent woman of color governor – Susana Martinez (R-NM) – is not eligible to run for re-election this year.
Proportion of All Women Candidates for Governor
White women are 83.3% of women governors today and 70.2% of all women candidates who have already filed to run for governor this year. Of the 4 (2D, 2R) incumbent women governors running for re-election this year, all are white.
The proportion of women of color candidates for governor drops by about 7 percentage points if all 74 filed + likely women candidates are included. If all are included, women of color are about 18.9% of all women candidates for governor and 23.4% of all Democratic women running for governor.
Success Rates for Women Candidates for Governor (as of May 23, 2018)
In the 9 gubernatorial primaries to date, 3 of 5 (60%) women of color candidates won nominations for governor, all non-incumbents. Of the 10 White women on gubernatorial ballots to date, just one – incumbent Governor Kate Brown (D-OR) – was successful.
Women of color were 0 of 2 female gubernatorial nominees in 2016 and 2 of 9 (22.2%) women nominees for governor in 2014. They are 66.7% of women nominees selected already in 2018, with 28 gubernatorial primaries left to go.
To monitor women's candidacies throughout election 2018, see CAWP's Election Watch page and watch for additional analyses at Gender Watch 2018, a project of CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
[i] Candidate race was coded by a team of CAWP researchers in two ways. First, we relied on candidate self-identification. Where self-identification was not provided to us, we relied on a multiple source verification process for coding. If verification sources were unavailable or unclear, we left the candidate as uncoded for race identification in our database.
Just last week, we surpassed the record number for women candidates filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. As of April 6, 309 (231D, 78R) women filed in the 29 states where filing deadlines have passed and candidacies have been certified. The previous high for women primary candidates for the U.S. House was 298, set in 2012. With 21 states left to file or certify candidacies, the number of women candidates across this year’s U.S. House primaries will most certainly confirm predictions of a surge in women running.
Amidst the narratives of women’s surge in candidacies and political engagement being floated by organizations and news media, it’s hard to see these particular data on women House candidates in the appropriate context. Within that context, you’ll find that women remain underrepresented among all House candidates, despite increasing in number and proportion of candidacies from 2016 to 2018.
As of April 6, women are just 21.9% of the major party candidates that have filed for the U.S. House. This is the other half of the story in election 2018: the number of men running is also up, and male candidates still far outnumber women running for the House.
In the 2016 U.S. House elections, 17.8% of all of the candidates on primary ballots or successful in party conventions were women.* While these data reflect candidacies across all states and account for any filed candidates who withdrew before ballots were printed, they indicate that the proportion of women candidates – not just the number of women running – is up this year from the previous election cycle.
Another way to compare the data is to look only at 2016 House candidates only in the same states that have already filed and certified candidates in 2018. Women were 15.9% of primary candidates and convention winners in these states in 2016.
The data in the table below show that the number of filed candidates in these 29 states is up by nearly 40% from the number of primary candidates on 2016 ballots or successful at party conventions. That number masks an enormous gender gap; while the number of male candidates is up by about 28% in these states overall, the number of female candidates is nearly double – 90% more – what it was in 2016.
NOTE: 2016 data reflects the number of men and women candidates on primary ballots or successful in nominating conventions (where the conventions were held in lieu of a primary election). 2018 data reflects the number of men and women candidates who filed and whose candidacies were certified according to state election officials in the 29 states that completed certification by April 6, 2018.
Short answer: no. To start, 75% of the major party women candidates who have already filed for the U.S. House are Democrats. And the underrepresentation of Republican women is particularly stark when reported as a proportion of all filed Republican House candidates. As of April 6, just 12% of all filed Republican House candidates are women, while women are 30.2% of all Democrats filed to run for the House.
In a previous analysis, I made the point that the “pink wave” in 2018 hues blue, demonstrating how much of the increase in women House candidates this year is concentrated among Democrats. When focusing specifically on the states where candidates have already filed this year, this story remains true. Compared to 2016 numbers of candidates on primary ballots or winning conventions in the same states, Democratic candidacies are up by about 68% overall, by 51% among Democratic men, and by 126.5% among Democratic women. The increase in Republican women candidates (28%) is larger than among Republican men (12%) from 2016 to 2018, but overall the rise in candidacies among Republicans is minimal (13.5%) and unequal to that among Democrats running for the House in 2018.
CAWP’s Election Watch provides updated numbers of women candidates in real time, including breakdowns by filing status, candidate type (open seat contender, challenger, incumbent), party, and level of office. These data help to provide additional context to understand gender differences among 2018 candidacies, as do analyses that have shown that challengers make up a high proportion of women House candidates and that many women candidates are running in districts where members of their party are unlikely to win.
These details matter, not only for understanding what is happening in electoral politics today, but also for predicting and contextualizing what happens in November. Thus far in 2018, the House data show that the progress for women candidates is real but not universal, and that the push to gender parity in congressional elections – at least vis-a-vis candidate numbers – is far from over.
* The proportion of filed candidates today may not reflect the total candidates on primary ballots (the measure used for 2016 data) if any candidates withdraw before ballots are printed.
News of the “Pink Wave” of women candidates was ubiquitous ahead of and after the first anniversary of the Women’s March. Cover stories and in-depth investigations into women running for office in 2018 rightfully celebrated the increase in the numbers of women running this year. At CAWP, we are the ones keeping those numbers, tracking potential candidates for Congress and statewide elected executive offices nationwide. We’re celebrating as well, thrilled to see women candidate numbers that are almost guaranteed to break records at every level. But we also know that there is more to this story, and ignoring important context in which to digest these candidate numbers risks inaccurate, and perhaps unfair, conclusions come Election Day.
So before we go surfing this wave, here are a few currents to consider.
1. The surge in potential candidacies is not contained to women; more men are running too. And, like among women, the numbers of Democratic men likely to run for Congress has more than doubled from election 2016. We compared our list of potential candidates for the U.S. House and Senate at the start of the new year in both the 2016 and 2018 cycles. The number of Democratic male House candidates went up by 126%, while the number of Democratic female House candidates went up by 146% between these dates. Among potential Republican House candidates, the numbers for men went up 25% and women’s numbers increased by 35% at this point between the 2016 and 2018 cycles.
These data reflect potential women candidates at the start of each election year, not the number of women candidates who ended up on the primary ballots (as filed candidates) in these cycles.
Among likely Senate candidates, the gains are larger for women - Democrats and Republicans – than men from the 2016 to 2018 cycles, but women are not alone in increasing their numbers this year.
2. More women are running in 2018, but they are still less than a quarter of likely congressional candidates. Based on CAWP’s database of potential congressional candidates, women are just 23% of all individuals that have indicated they may file to run in 2018. This is up from about 19% of all potential congressional candidates at this point in election 2016, but – needless to say – is far from representative of women’s share of the U.S. population (52%).
The gain in women’s presence among the pool of likely candidates is notable, but may also be surprisingly low to many reading about a new “year of the woman.” When the rise among male candidates discussed above is taken into account, however, this makes much more sense. It’s only when women’s rise in candidacies significantly outpaces men’s that women will move closer to gender parity among potential congressional contenders.
3. The “Pink Wave” hues blue. The increases in women’s – and men’s – potential U.S. House candidacies are greatest among Democrats. Moreover, the representation of women among potential Democratic candidates for both the U.S. House and Senate is significantly higher than among potential Republican candidates, consistent with the disparities in representation among Democratic and Republican women in Congress today.
As of January 1, 2018, women were just under 30% of potential Democratic candidates for the U.S. House and 35.4% of potential Democratic Senate contenders. In contrast, women were just 12.7% of potential Republican House candidates and 13.5% of potential Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.
Is this disparity consistent with previous cycles? Yes. The dearth of Republican women candidates is not unique to 2018. In fact, looking at the change in Democratic and Republican women’s proportions of their parties potential candidates from 2016 to 2018 shows the partisan story hasn’t changed much, especially among House contenders. The proportion of women among potential House Democratic candidates increased by about 1.5 percentage points from 2016 to 2018, while the proportion of women among potential House Republicans rose by three-quarters of a point.
Among potential Senate candidates, the proportion of women among Democrats jumped by 6 points from 2016 to 2018, while the proportion of women among Republicans rose by just over 3 points.
4. Many women running are swimming against the tide. As of this week, 59% of all potential women candidates for the U.S. House and 61% of all potential women candidates for the U.S. Senate are seeking to unseat incumbents, whether in primaries or in the general election. At this point in the 2016 cycle, 41% of all potential women House candidates and 52% of potential women Senate contenders were running as challengers. By historical comparison, 51% of file women candidates for the U.S. House were challengers in 1992, the “year of the woman” when women nearly doubled their congressional representation.
Celebrating the rise in women’s candidacies in 2018 is more than merited, but recognizing these electoral dynamics is important for a few reasons. First, being clear about the challenges women candidates will face in 2018 ensures that expectations of a drastic rise in women’s representation after Election Day are tempered and a more modest gain in women’s officeholding is not misinterpreted as a failure. Second, including men in our analyses provides a stark reminder of women’s overall underrepresentation among candidates and officeholders and, thus, the progress still left to make for women to reach parity with men in political power. Finally, these data should serve as motivation to push for greater women’s political empowerment on both sides of the aisle, both in this and future election cycles.
This is not the first time CAWP has issued caution ahead of a proposed "Year of the Woman." Check out this fall 1992 newsletter column from CAWP founder Ruth Mandel, which struck a similar tone. That year, women did nearly double their numbers in Congress, but remained just 10% of all members of Congress.
Too much to do and too little time this holiday season? To help lighten the load, here’s a handy list of gift ideas honoring women public leaders – perfect for the women (and men!) in your life who appreciate the role that women play in shaping our democracy, as well as the kids who will carry the leadership torch in years to come.
TheCOMPASSProject has designed a collection of special artisan-crafted True North bracelets, and a portion of sales supports CAWP’s Ready to Run® Network of nonpartisan campaign trainings for women. We wear our bracelets every day as a symbol of hope that one day women in America will have the power to govern as equals. Yes, this is a shameless plug to support our work, but you’ll also help women break some marble ceilings while shopping. See, everyone wins!
Speaking of ceilings, this shattered glass ceiling necklace pays tribute to the accomplishments of empowered women everywhere. Enough said.
Every baby needs this Ruth Bader Ginsburg bib, because it’s never too early to start kids on embodying the spirit of powerful women.
We can’t all be on the Supreme Court, but we can enjoy a cup of coffee with this record-breaking, history-making squad any time we’d like.
Statement t-shirts are fun; why not make them empowering ones? Suffragist Alice Paul said, “There is nothing complicated about ordinary equality,” and we agree. Every woman has a mind of her own. And in case anyone needs reminding about where women belong.
What better way to spend a cold winter’s night than curled up in front of a good show? Equity is about the hard road women face making it in a man’s world. The binge-worthy drama Borgen covers challenges faced by Denmark’s first female prime minister.
Last, but not least: books that teach kids and adults about women’s public leadership. (Note: this is by no means an exhaustive list of books on women leaders. The biggest challenge is the lack of titles on the subject of women’s political leadership. Take note, publishing houses and authors! We need more. In the meantime, additional book suggestions are available on our Teach a Girl to Lead™ site.)
Preschool and Elementary: Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison; She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger; Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter; Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio ; If I Were President by Catherine Stier; Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colon. Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts and Diane Goode; Mary America: First Girl President of the United States by Carole Marsh; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can by Cynthia Levinson; A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull by Kathleen Krull and Jane Dyer.
Pre-Teen: Yours Truly, Lucy B. Parker: Vote for Me! by Robin Palmer; With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote by Ann Bausum; Scholastic Biography: Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman by Patricia McKissack and Fredrick McKissack; President of the Whole Fifth Grade by Sherri Winston; Margaret Chase Smith: A Woman for President by Lynn Plourde.
Teen: 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women's History: From Suffragettes to Skirt Lengths to the E.R.A. by Tonya Bolden (editor); Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Geoffrey C. Ward and Kenneth Burns; Still I Rise: The Persistence of Phenomenal Women by Marlene Wagman-Geller.
Adult: Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead by Madeleine Kunin; Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick by Peter Collier; Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm; My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor; Mankiller: A Chief and Her People by Wilma Mankiller; Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress by Olympia Snowe; The Autobiography Of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Thirty women challengers ran for Virginia’s House of Delegates on Tuesday; all but three were Democrats. Of those thirty, nine (30%) – all Democrats – won, and one Democratic woman’s race is too close to call. This success rate for challengers is rare. In fact, while 24 men ran as challengers in 2017, just 3 (12.5%) were successful. One male challenger’s contest is still too close to call. Put differently, women were 56% of all challengers, but 75% of the successful challengers in Virginia’s House of Delegate races this year.
To better understand the context for – and unlikelihood of -- these victories, we drilled down further to compare results in each House of Delegates district where a woman ran in 2017 with results in the 2015 election. Here are a few key findings (with numbers attached!):
- Sometimes high risk does reap high rewards. Some women who ran as challengers in races previously uncontested by Democrats surprised many with their success.
- Wide swings in Democratic support from 2015 to 2017 were key to victories for men and women challengers. These dynamics upended conventional wisdom that challengers’ success would be highly unlikely.
- Republican challengers were few in number and confronted strong headwinds. Just one new Republican woman was elected in Virginia’s House of Delegates, and she won an open seat.
1. Sometimes high risk does reap high rewards.
In 2017, Democratic candidates challenged Republicans in 31 Virginia House districts where those Republicans ran unopposed in 2015. They took on high risks, as the precedent in each of these districts indicated slim chances of success. The results were largely as expected, but four of these challengers won. Importantly, they were all women. Their margins of victory ranged from two to 16 points.
Vote Margins for Virginia House of Delegates Challengers in Previously Uncontested Districts, November 2017
2. Wide swings in Democratic support from 2015 to 2017 were key to victories for men and women challengers.
Democratic challengers competed in 17 districts where their Republican opponents had also been challenged in 2015, and they won in about half of them. Women were nearly two-thirds (11 of 17) of those challengers, and are the same proportion of the winners of these contests; five women and three men won, and both a man and a woman are candidates in races where the results are too close to call. The average margin of victory for the five successful Democratic woman challengers was 5.5 points (ranging from 0.9 to 9.8 points), and these women, on average, swung their districts’ voter support 21.8 points from 2015 to 2017 (ranging from 16.7 to 28.1 points). The three successful male challengers, on average, swung their districts 23.7 points from 2015 to 2017 (ranging from 19.3 to 26.3 points).
Even where they were unsuccessful, Democratic challengers narrowed margins of defeat from 2015 to 2017. On average, the five defeated women challengers in these contests cut the Republican advantage in their districts by 11.9 points (ranging from 0.8 to 16.4 points), and the two defeated men cut the Republican advantage in their districts by an average of 14.1 points.
Vote Margins & Swing in District Party Vote from 2015 to 2017 for Virginia House of Delegates Challengers, November 2017
3. Republican challengers were few in number and confronted strong headwinds.
Just six Republican challengers, three women and three men, competed in Virginia’s elections, representing 11% of all House challengers in 2017. All of them lost, and by much larger margins than had Republicans competing in the same districts in 2015.
The average margin of defeat for the three Republican women challengers in 2017 was 26.4 points (ranging from 20.1 to 37.2 points). In 2015, the average margin of defeat for Republican women nominees in those districts was 8.2 points (ranging from 2.6 to 12.5 points). In each of these districts, Republican women lost ground - anywhere from 10.5 to 24.7 points in support - between 2015 and 2017.
The average margin of defeat for the three Republican men challengers in 2017 was 4.2 points (ranging from 23.6 to 61.8 points). In only one of these districts was there a Republican candidate in 2015; in that race (District 87), the Republican nominee was defeated by 2 points in 2015, but 23.6 points in 2017.
How do these findings compare to women’s candidacies for open seats and as incumbents?
Three of the six women candidates running for open seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates won on Tuesday, including two Democrats and one Republican. Importantly, two of the four open seat contests in which women competed were woman vs. woman races.
- The most striking swing between 2015 and 2017 occurred in District 42, where Democrat Kathy Tran won a seat by 22 points that had been won by the Republican incumbent by 27 points in 2015, yielding a nearly 50 point swing.
- In District 2, Democrat Jennifer Carrol Foy defeated her Republican opponent by 26 points. In 2015, the Democratic nominee in that district was defeated by 1 point.
- Emily Brewer was the only new Republican woman elected to the House of Delegates in 2017. She defeated her Democratic opponent by 25 points in a district where the Republican incumbent had run unopposed in 2015.
Finally, all of the 15 incumbent women candidates in Virginia, including 11 Democrats and 4 Republicans, were re-elected. Nine (8D, 1R) were unopposed. Consistent with the trends across races, Democratic women incumbents increased their margins of success from 2015 (except for in cases where they were opposed in 2017 and not in 2015), and Republican women’s margins of success narrowed in 2017, in one case to just 0.5 points.
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.