Scholars have long lamented the lack of women candidates for public office. Attempts to recruit women candidates have been widespread, targeting older women with empty nests, younger women without children (or those not interested in having them), lawyers and businesswomen whose experience mirrors that of typical male candidates. But another pool is waiting to be tapped: losers, women who have previously run for office but did not win. Challenges to re-recruiting these women to run are deep-rooted in societal expectations of women. Yet, the 2016 presidential race offers two examples, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, who have not let political setbacks stop them from pursuing their goals. Their decisions to persist despite earlier failed campaigns should inspire other women who have run and lost to jump back in the fray.
The common refrain that “when women run, they win” refers to evidence that women and men have similar win rates in general elections (Newman 1994; Sanbonmatsu 2006). But what happens if they lose? Women are less likely than men to run for election after suffering a defeat (Dolan et al 2015). Convincing women (who are less often self-starters) to throw their hats into the ring in the first place takes time; sometimes it requires additional resources from political parties and women’s organizations. (See CAWP resource Poised to Run.) If the woman candidate loses her first election and sours on the prospect, that investment may never pay off. For women who suffer from self-doubts about their qualifications, a loss may provide an excuse not to run again. (Fox and Lawless 2010).
Yet the 2016 presidential campaign showcased two women candidates who dusted themselves off and got back in the game. Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in the 2008 Democratic primary was a bruising political defeat. Conceding the nomination to relative newcomer Senator Barack Obama, then-Senator Clinton said, “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina lost a highly visible Senate race to incumbent Barbara Boxer in 2010. The return of both Clinton and Fiorina to the presidential race in 2016 to take yet another crack at high office is a welcome model for women recovering from election defeats at lower levels all across the country.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Fiorina’s senate campaign manager, Marty Wilson, said, “Carly was bummed after the loss, but I encouraged her to stay involved and run again. I told Carly she should run for president in 2012 and she said I was ‘Nuts.’” Fortunately, Fiorina changed her mind (with encouragement from a political insider). Her compelling performance in the August primary debates established her as a significant presence in the crowded Republican field.
Despite her loss in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was identified early as the obvious choice for her party’s nomination in 2016, based in part on experience she gained as Secretary of State – a position she won as a consequence of both her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her strong showing in ’08.
One never knows what may follow even a losing campaign. Many women officeholders cite their campaigns for lower office as having signaled to powerbrokers their willingness and ability to serve in appointed positions unanticipated before their races. In Hillary Clinton’s case, seizing the opportunity to serve as Secretary of State under her 2008 opponent, Barack Obama, positioned her for her 2016 run, with the added credential leading many to call her the most qualified presidential candidate of the modern era.
There are plenty of reasons not to dust oneself off and try again. Campaigns are costly, both financially and emotionally, as well as in time that may be in short supply for women who are still responsible for the bulk of household maintenance and often breadwinning for their families. But there may be more at play as well.
Self-doubt has been documented among women in likely candidate pools, and it begins early. In analyzing college-age women and their pursuit of leadership opportunities on campus, Keohane et al 2003 found that at Duke University many women undergraduates were under the pressure of “effortless perfection: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort”. It is possible that women candidates face similar social expectations (think supermom and having it all) and a hard-fought campaign loss is hardly evidence of effortless perfection.
So what will it take for women to overcome this? Angela Lee Ducksworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that success is largely dependent upon grit, described as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina”. Political campaigns certainly require stamina, and women’s individual tenacity should be supplemented by political parties who can provide volunteers, funds, and public statements of support to make it easier for women to take another chance. Like political campaigns, the adage exemplifying grit, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” may also be gendered. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that talented girls are less likely to persist following a failure because they perceive abilities to be innate rather than a consequence of effort and practice (Dweck and Leggett 1988). These beliefs may persist into adulthood, as Kay and Shipman (2014) find that women are more likely to blame themselves for failure and give credit to other factors when they succeed, while their male counterparts dismiss failure and claim credit.
Knowing that these gendered differences exist, it is important to highlight the number of men in public office who were not successful at first. They include President Bill Clinton in his 1974 Arkansas congressional race and President George W. Bush in his 1978 Texas congressional race. Even President Barack Obama lost a 2000 Illinois Democratic congressional primary before going on to win a Senate seat in 2004. Speaking to a broader audience, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, recently posted a CV of his failures, arguing that making his own failures visible to others would prevent them from wrongfully attributing their own failures to individual flaws rather than the external factors that could be at play.
In the context of a campaign, there could be any number of reasons why a candidate doesn’t receive the most votes irrespective of a candidate’s suitability. The knowledge gained from an initial loss is invaluable to a qualified candidate who may perceive her loss as an indictment of her abilities alone, when in reality she might just need a different campaign manager, a better communications strategy, or a race for a different type of office. Start-up companies across Silicon Valley have spoken out about the importance of failure and learning from our mistakes, indicating that value can come from experience – even negative experiences.
Publically admitting failure is certainly easier for those with privilege. Because male candidates are the default, men who lose and try again may be seen as the “comeback kid” or a “fighter”, while women may be tainted by the loss. It most certainly is easier for a man than a woman to overcome a loser association. That means women should be strategic in the selection of their races, but being strategic shouldn’t mean permanent retirement. It should mean learning from one’s mistakes and demonstrating the toughness that qualifies you for public service. With so few women running for and holding office, the pressure not to let down an entire gender is high. Furthermore, those with fewer resources don’t always have the option of another go-around. It is vital, then, that political parties and women’s organizations provide the institutional support that would make it easier for women to make a second attempt.
For their part, women who don’t win on that first try should take a lesson from Secretary Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina and go back at it, bringing even more as a consequence of the earlier defeat. In her commencement speech at the University of Rhode Island, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise”. Wisdom is surely a valuable commodity for public officials. Wisdom gained through failure is something previously unsuccessful women candidates can bring to the table, rather than something that should disqualify them from another campaign. We need more women in public office. Not perfect women – wise women. Sometimes that is going to mean stepping up one more time.
Let’s stipulate that neither party even approaches gender parity among its elected officials; except for the very rare local council, it’s nearly impossible to find places where women are represented at levels that match their numbers in the population.
But one of the key reasons that the number of women in elective office remains surprisingly low is the paucity of Republican women. The imbalance in the proportion of elected women from the two major parties is a fixture of American politics; Democrats have long had a substantially greater percentage of women among lawmakers at the federal and state levels than Republicans. What would the numbers of women officeholders look like if the proportion of women in the GOP matched Democrats’ level of women’s representation?
In the U.S. Senate, there are currently 20 women, 14 Democrats and 6 Republicans. The Democratic women constitute 30 percent of the Democratic delegation: 14 women/46 senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats). If the Republican side, with 54 senators, were 30 percent women, there would be 16 GOP women, giving us a total of 30 women in the Senate, an increase of 10 from today.
The same process yields a US House with 81 Republican women and a total of 143 women (rather than the current 84). Applying the formula to state legislatures, we would see 2,493 women instead of the current 1,808.
Some might note that these numbers don’t mean much on their own. But whatever distinctive qualities women bring to elective office, we’d have a lot more of them if Republican delegations looked more like their Democratic counterparts.
D women as a
% of all D’s
R women as a
% of all R’s
If R’s had the same %
of women as D’s
|The total # of women would be (as compared to the current #):|
|U.S. Senate||30% (14/46)||
|30% of 54=16||30 (20)|
|U.S. House||33% (62/188)||9% (22/246)||
33% of 246=81
|State Legislatures||34% (1084/3164)||17% (705/4117)||34% of 4117=1411||2495 (1808)|
The 2015 elections are in the books (mostly, with one state legislative race pending), and it’s hard to ignore stories about the 2016 presidential race crowding the airwaves. But what will CAWP’s Election Watch be tracking at the congressional and statewide levels? With two 2016 filing deadlines already past (in Alabama and Arkansas) it’s not too soon to consider what’s at stake – although it’s far too early to judge how close we may come to matching or beating past records.
In 34 states, U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot. To date, there are open seats in six states (CA, FL, IN, LA, MD and NV) but it’s possible that more will be created as incumbents contemplate the relative merits of an arduous contest versus a quiet retirement. Two incumbent women have already announced that they will step down: Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). That leaves three incumbent women who plan to seek re-election: Lisa Murkowski (R-AK); Kelly Ayotte (R-NH); and Patty Murray (D-WA). Ayotte’s race is already shaping up as a marquee woman-versus-woman contest, with Governor Maggie Hassan challenging her. Fifteen women in the Senate are holdovers whose seats are not up in 2016.
It could be a big year for women of color, with Democratic Senate candidates so far in six states (Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez in CA, Pam Keith in FL, Tammy Duckworth and Andrea Zopp in IL, Donna Edwards in MD, Catherine Cortez Masto in NV, and Joyce Dickerson in SC). Only one woman of color, Mazie Hirono, serves in the Senate now, and she is only the second woman of color there, following in the footsteps of Carol Moseley Braun.
On two occasions, a record 36 women have filed for Senate seats; in 2012, 20 Democrats and 16 Republicans ran, and in 2010, 19 Democrats and 17 Republicans did so. The largest number of women to win primaries was 18 (12D, 6R) in 2012. And the maximum number of women serving in the Senate concurrently is 20, a figure first achieved in 2013. The current number remains 20, although the party balance has changed (16D, 4R in 2013, 14D, 6R now).
US House of Representatives
Of course, all 435 House seats are up . So far, we know of 24 open seats, and we anticipate that 78 incumbent women (56D, 22R) will seek re-election, although that number will likely drop at least a bit. We know of seven incumbents (6D, 1R) not returning, including four running for the Senate, one running for county office, and two retiring.
The records to beat for the House? The maximum number to file was 298 (190D, 108R) in 2012. In that same year, 166 women (118D, 48R) won primaries. We reached the peak number of women in the House in 2013 (104) and that’s the number still serving (62D, 22R).
Only 11 states have gubernatorial elections in 2016. Six states (DE, MO, NH, ND, VT, WV) will have open-seat races, including one (NH) where the current woman governor, Maggie Hassan, is running for the U.S. Senate instead, as mentioned above. Women are currently candidates in four of the six open-seat races: Lacey Lafferty (R-DE); Catherine Hanaway (R-MO), Stefany Shaheen (D-NH), and Sue Minter (D-VT). One incumbent, Kate Brown (D-OR) is running; since she took office via constitutional succession, this will be her first gubernatorial race. The other four incumbent women (in NM, OK, RI and SC) are not up for election this year.
For chief executives in the states, the record number of candidates filing was 34 (18D, 15R, 1ACP) in 1994. That year, 10 women (6D, 3R, 1IND) won nominations, a figure matched in 2002 (9D, 1R), 2006 (5D, 5R) and 2010 (5D, 5R) – all non-presidential years. The maximum number of women serving as governors was 9, which occurred in 2004 and 2007. Right now, we have six women governors (3D, 3R).
While specifics are still falling into place for the full range of statewide elected executive offices, two states offer interesting possibilities. In Missouri, five women (3D, 2R) are candidates for open seats, including two Black women who – if successful – would be the first Black statewide executives in the Show-Me State. And in New Hampshire, Portsmouth Councilwoman Stefany Shaheen is contemplating a race that could make her the first daughter to follow her mother as a state’s chief executive, since Jeanne Shaheen served three terms as New Hampshire’s governor before winning a U.S. Senate seat. Moreover, if Shaheen won the Democratic primary, she could find herself facing Chris Sununu, son of former Governor and Senator John Sununu, in a new-generation rematch; the senior Sununu defeated the senior Shaheen in her first Senate bid in 2002, but she bested him in a repeat match-up in 2008.
Primaries for statewide and congressional offices begin in March and continue well into September of 2016, so it will be a long time before we know how the races are shaping up – how many women are running, where women are strong contenders for open seats, where we might see woman-versus-woman races or other contests of particular interest. If you want to track the prospects for women candidates, you can visit CAWP’s Election Watch page for updates after each filing date and primary – and of course, on Election Night, November 8, 2016.
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.
This week, CAWP was lucky to have extern Alexandra Banash join us from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. Working with a fellow Aquinas Saint, CAWP Scholar Kelly Dittmar, Alexandra learned about CAWP’s work and helped conduct CAWP research. As the week came to an end, Kelly and Alexandra had a short conversation about some of the topics that came up throughout the week, and shared their cross-generational insights below.
KD: Why are you interested in the topic of women in politics? What made you interested in coming to CAWP this summer?
AB:I have been interested in politics itself from a very young age. We could say I have then also been interested in women in politics from a young age because of the active participation of women that I have been surrounded by my entire life. I delved into the subject of women and politics as an undergrad at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. As a junior I enrolled in an entry-level women’s studies course. I don’t think from that point on there was a time that I became detached from love of the topic. With that being said, I was interested in coming to CAWP this summer when the chair of the women’s studies department encouraged me to apply for a pilot program. In doing so I had no idea that I was coming to CAWP. Not knowing much about CAWP and not knowing I was coming to CAWP was a curse and a blessing because after my time here I don’t want to leave.
AB: Even if we had equal numbers of men and women on the ballot, do you think that their will ever be a 50/50 distribution between men and women in office?
KD:One of the biggest, and initial, hurdles to political parity is the dearth of female candidates. We know that women women run, women win as much as men in comparable races. In other words, there does not appear to be any blatant bias at the ballot box. However, women make up far less than 50% of candidates for office at all levels, lessening their chances of being on the ballot or being elected to office. There is a great deal of research into whywomen don’t run, as well as efforts by women’s political organizations to encourage, recruit, and support women candidates (CAWP’s Ready to Run is a great example!). I’m confident that if the number of women candidates rose significantly, we would see a quicker move to political parity. But that alone won’t resolve some of the underlying institutional barriers to women’s political power. That will take more significant cultural changes, like redefining and revisioning what it means to be an elected official so that masculinity and men are not assumed the norm and femininity and women assumed as “other.” Rethinking and revising our stereotypical expectations of gender, candidacy, and officeholders is the harder resolution on the road to 50/50, and is one that will both create greater opportunities for women to run and be influenced by women running and serving. I can’t venture to guess whenwe will reach gender parity in office since we’ve seen such a plateau (and some declines) in recent decades, but I do hope we get there – even if that means I am out of a job someday.
KD:This week, you helped analyze data related to Black women’s political representation and engaged in conversations about gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential race. You also learned a bit more about what we do at CAWP. What have you found most interesting or surprising, and why?
AB: Looking at the data overall I am shocked by the numbers that analyze the amount of women in statewide elected executive offices by state. Just 25% of statewide elected executive officials are women and only two of those are Black women. The disparity between the numbers of Black women in office and Black women in the population in some states is almost unfathomable. Looking at state legislative representation, I am alarmed by the fact that only 3.4 percent of all state legislators nationwide are Black women in 2015. I do not expect to see a large increase in 2016, which is very unfortunate. When will this change?
AB: What do you think is the best tool for successful support as a woman when deciding to run for office whether it is on the local, state, or federal level?
KD:We know from research that women make the decision to run differently than men, and support and encouragement is even more essential for them than for men. However, it’s too simple to say that we need to just “ask women to run.” In addition to asking, or encouraging women, to consider a bid for office, we need to provide them the incentive, infrastructure, and roadmap to run successfully. Having the support of political leaders – whether elected officials, formerly elected officials, or party leaders – is often most influential to women’s calculus. If that support is not there, especially from parties (which, according to research, can act as gatekeepers to women’s political power), it’s important for women to be able to look to an alternative support infrastructure. That might include women’s political organizations, personal support networks, or community groups that will back a woman candidate from the time she makes the decision to run until Election Day. Running for office is not easy at any level and women are smart – they need to know that: (1) they can win; (2) there are people behind them; and (3) there are groups or individuals that will help them navigate political terrain successfully.
KD:Recent research on young people’s political ambition finds a gender gap in young men and women’s interest in running for office (with women less likely to want to run). It also finds that women’s confidence in their leadership skills actually declinesin college. Based on your knowledge and experiences, what do you think might be happening? What do you think we can do about it?
AB:The decrease in confidence for women in college might be tied to the limited scope of who is in power today. The rigid two-party system constrains the expansion of opportunity for groups that are marginalized from power. Today, women are a group marginalized from power, which is correlated with the rigid gender binary in society where men have control power relations. The large gap of women to men in our legislative body affects the experiences in our everyday lives. How can we as women become so confident if we don’t have other women behind us? As Shirley Chisholm would say, “My success was exclusively due to the support of women,” adding, “No one will save us but us.”
AB:Transitioning from a small liberal arts school to a large university, can you compare and contrast the power of the students from a political stand point and how does it influence the decisions of the hierarchy of the administration of the school(s)?
KD:Even more than contrasting the power of students at small or large higher education institutions, I think it is important to emphasize the political power students have, but often do not use. Whether it be with their university administration or their member of Congress, students can mobilize to have a great deal of influence. As consumers (at a college or university) and constituents, students are affected directly by the decisions made by leaders in both realms. Like any population, students often struggle to find the time or incentive (or even information needed) to navigate the bureaucracy of government or higher education. I think the key for students across the board is to see themselves as their own best advocates and not count on others to represent their interests. Just like women need a seat at the table, students’ voices need to be heard in the most important policy debates of the day – all of which affect their presents and futures.
KD:There is a chance that we might elect a woman president in 2016. Do you think it will happen? Do you think it matters to have a woman in the White House? Why/why not?
AB:Yes, there is a chance, but I do not believe it will happen. Of course, I would be so ecstatic to even see a woman be the leading candidate on the Republican or Democratic ticket, but we need to see if the level of support is there and we need to see if people get out and vote. Voting is the key; if we can somehow reach out to the people that would most heavily influence and be influenced by a women being in office, I think the vote could change drastically. On that note, I do think it matters to have women in office. In looking at recent data, we have seen a common progression in the ups and downs of the economy, but there has not been any change in who is regulating the economy per se. I also think it is important to note that having women in office would also change the dynamic of the household, shifting roles and making it more of a common solution for women to be in public and private sphere.
KD: Of all of the CAWP staff you have met this week, who is your favorite and why?
AB: Of all of the CAWP staff I have met this week, I would have to say Florence Eagleton (1870-1956; pictured to the right with Alexandra) would have to be my favorite [NOTE: Eagleton is the namesake of the Eagleton institute, not a former or current member of the CAWP staff.] She once said in donating the building that houses CAWP and Eagleton that the purposes should be for, “the development of and education for responsible leadership in civic and governmental affairs and the solution of their political problems.” We have a lot of problems. Somehow we have to fix them.
Over the past two weeks, I traveled through two Nordic countries – Sweden and Denmark – for work and vacation. As I explored both country’s capital cities, the gendered political realities were made clear and distinct from the United States. I’ve pulled together this photo diary of my trip with some facts and observations that might be of interest to those who pay particular attention to women’s political representation at home and abroad.
The Swedish parliament, or Riksdag, nears gender parity in political representation; 43.6% of its members are women. It ranks 5th in the world for women’s parliamentary representation.
While on the tour of parliament, our tour guide noted this fact in passing as if it were to be expected (while the Americans like me noted how far we are from that reality). In fact, she continued to say that they have work to do on representativeness of the body, noting that their LGBT membership (4%) and representation of immigrant communities are still below the national level.
Anna Mahoney (Tulane University), Mary Nugent (Rutgers University), our Swedish Parliament Tour Guide, and me
The Swedish parliament honors their female leaders in the building, including a “women’s room” with an exhibit celebrating women’s political leadership and urging the next generation of women to follow in their footsteps. The caption below the mirror reads: “This could be you.”
The Danish parliament, or Folketinget, boasts fewer women than Sweden, but still ranks 16th in the world for women’s parliamentary representation – 56 spots above the US; 38% of its members were women going into the parliamentary elections held last week.
Denmark held its parliamentary elections last week while I was visiting, and the number of women’s campaign signs appeared to outnumber men’s signs. While not an indicator of candidate totals (only 36% of all799 candidates were women), the visible presence of women in all aspects of the election was striking.
Women are at the helm in 3 of 10 of Denmark’s major parties, demonstrating their political power is not only in numbers, but also in status.
Most obviously, Denmark entered last Thursday’s election with a female prime minister – Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the nation’s first female prime minister and head of the Social Democrats. While Thorning-Schmidt’s party fared well in the election, her bloc lost the majority and she resigned her seat as prime minister. However, as she noted on Election Night, “I was Denmark’s first female prime minister, but I won’t be the last.” Side note: Politicians are very accessible in a country of just 5.6 million. On Election Day, I ran into the prime minister at a hot dog stand in Norreport, Copenhagen.
And then I saw some MPs celebrating outside parliament as the returns came in.
Denmark is also home to the television series Borgen, about the fictional first female prime minister of the country. I highly recommend the series to anyone who loves politics, and I’d argue that it is one of the best portrayals of a woman at the peak of political power. The series is now available on Netflix.
While taking the Borgentour, I learned that many believe the series influenced parliamentary debates and may have even primed the country for electing its first female prime minister (which it did after the second season aired). Recent murmurings of an US version of Borgenmay cue questions about whether life will imitate art or art may imitate life in the case of a female head of state in our country.
As CAWP gets ready to welcome NPR’s Michel Martin as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Lecturer in Women’s Political Leadership, you might sign up to attend without knowing anything about the woman for whom the lectureship is named. Your interest might be further piqued by discovering the roster of extraordinary African American women who have already been Lipman Lecturers; beginning with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the list includes powerhouses such as former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, law professor Patricia Williams, Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, political strategist Donna Brazile, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, PBS host Gwen Ifill, Obama advisors Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes, and NPR host Michele Norris. Who was the woman whose life we celebrate with these exciting annual lectures? As we wind up Black History Month and head into Women’s History Month, it’s an appropriate moment to find out.
Senator Wynona Lipman was the first African American woman in New Jersey’s State Senate, serving from 1971 until her death in 1999. A Georgia native, Lipman earned her Ph.D. in French at Columbia and taught for many years, confronting racism that kept her from a full-time professorship in her area of expertise. She got involved with politics through the local PTA and NAACP, ultimately becoming the chairman of Montclair’s Democrats and then an Essex County Freeholder before moving up to the State Senate. Her biography provides the details.
But the heart of the story is this: Throughout her more than quarter-century tenure in Trenton, Senator Lipman carried the water on almost every key piece of legislation for women, children, families, small businesses, and minorities. We asked Alma Saravia, Senator Lipman’s longtime aide, for reminiscences about the path-breaking senator. In her words: I worked with Senator Lipman for many years as the Executive Director of the Commission on Sex Discrimination in the Statutes. The Commission was mandated to conduct a systematic study of the statutes to determine whether the laws were discriminatory or whether the absence thereof resulted in women being denied full equal protection under the law. As Senator Lipman stated: “[m]any of the state’s laws contain discriminatory provisions based upon sex and reflect policy judgments which are no longer accepted by our society.” (Trenton Times, June 28, 1979) The legislation enacted as a result of her considerable efforts changed the lives of many of New Jersey’s citizens. Senator Lipman’s distinguished legislative record included sponsoring bills related to her deep-seated commitment to children’s rights, the rights of women and the disenfranchised and to assuring that health care and essential services were provided to New Jersey’s residents. Her record of getting more bills signed into law than most legislators stands today. In addition, Senator Lipman’s powers of persuasion were legendary. When she wanted a bill to go forward she passionately advocated for her legislation and she often “wore down” her colleagues. Senator Lipman knew that there was strength in numbers. Many of the bills recommended by the Commission were enacted with the strong support of other organizations or individuals. From law professors to ordinary citizens, Senator Lipman understood that their voices counted in lobbying for a bill. With the formation of alliances came the knowledge that compromises must be made – a “half a loaf is better than none.” There is also no doubt that Senator Lipman’s legislative success was attributable to her strong belief in the need for the legislation. Whether it was the establishment of the State’s first domestic violence act, child support laws, the parentage act, economic equity legislation, recognizing Advanced Practice Nurses, or AIDS related legislation, her ground-breaking bills reflected her belief in those issues. There was no mistaking her deep passion and commitment to social justice and equality. What would Senator Lipman be doing today if she were still in the Senate? No doubt addressing the same kinds of issues, speaking out loudly on behalf of the under-represented, and bringing both her intellect and her powers of persuasion to bear to identify and banish all vestiges of discrimination. In her absence, we draw on the wisdom of the Lipman lecturers to point us toward what others must do to move forward.
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.