Earlier this week, a colleague was speaking to a community group about women in the 2012 elections and CAWP’s work to increase women’s political representation. The first question she was asked, in light of the tragedy that struck Newtown, Connecticut just days earlier, was what role women in office would play in the ensuing legislative debate over gun control. Where do the current female members of Congress stand on gun issues? And does the increased number of women in office make it more (or less) likely that anti-gun measures will pass? There are no concrete answers to these questions, as “gun control” encompasses myriad types of reforms and the women in congress do not represent a unified bloc on this or any issue. But looking to history might be helpful to formulating hypotheses about what role women might play if gun control is, in fact, put on the legislative agenda. In 1994, Congress passed a ten-year assault weapons ban (AWB) under a title of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (HR 3355) by a vote of 235 to 195. At the time, there were 54 women in Congress – just 10% representation. Despite these numbers, women played a prominent role in the 1994 ban. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was the architect and chief sponsor of the AWB and worked tirelessly to get enough votes to attach it to the Senate version of the crime bill. In the House, women were disproportionately represented among the members whipping the vote to be sure that the bill included the ban.
When it came to a vote, 83% of the women in the House, and all but one woman in the Senate, voted in favor of the assault weapons ban; men were more evenly split, with 50% of men in the House and 59% of men in the Senate voting for the ban. Partisanship plays an important role in votes on this issue, but women in both parties were more likely to vote for the ban than were their male counterparts (see charts). Much has changed since 1994. Women have nearly doubled their representation in Congress – when the 113th Congress begins on January 3rd, women will take 18% (or 98) of the House and Senate seats. With that increase comes greater regional, racial, and ideological diversity among the women who serve. Probably most different is the increased conservatism among the Republican women who now serve, which may make it harder than it was 18 years ago to find bipartisan support for new restrictions on gun ownership. Because there have been so few gun control votes in recent years, one of the only indicators we have of potential support for such legislation is National Rifle Association (NRA) ratings. Based on grades given to members of the 113th Congress, women represent a disproportionate percentage of the House (34%) and Senate (37%) members labeled as anti-gun by the NRA. However, the NRA grades all 20 Republican women in the House and 3 of 4 female Republican senators as strongly pro-gun; one female House Democrat and one Democratic woman in the Senate are also given “A” grades by the gun lobby. The context (post-Newtown) and content (e.g. only targeting assault weapons) of any pending legislative debate matters and may yield votes that do not mirror these particular ratings, but only time will tell. What we do know for now is that Senator Feinstein has vowed to re-introduce an updated assault weapons ban when the congressional session opens in January and, if history is any guide, will fight furiously to garner support in both chambers. Some pro-gun members have already said they would be open to restrictions on military-grade weapons, and House Democrat Carolyn McCarthy (NY), a long-time anti-gun advocate, has vowed she will give “full force” to reform efforts and will “embarrass” President Obama if he does not stay true to his promise of policy change. It’s no surprise that these two women will be leading the charge to respond to recent gun tragedies. Both women know intimately the horrors of gun violence and have used personal tragedies to fuel policy priorities. Moreover, they represent constituencies beyond their geographic borders, speaking on behalf of women in the electorate who – based on yesterday’s Pew Poll - are significantly more likely than men to prioritize gun control over gun rights. It will take both men and women at all levels to change our nation’s policies around guns, and having more women in Congress does not guarantee movement in either direction – holding firm on rights or putting more restrictions in place. But, women – as politicians, advocates, and citizens - will be essential players in this national debate.
Just one week after 19 new women were elected to the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference with the current caucus of Democratic women members to announce that she would once again put her name forward for the Democrat’s top spot in the House. Raising some eyebrows and eliciting heckles from the cadre of women on the stage, journalist Luke Russert suggested that her decision to stay on posed obstacles to leadership for younger members. After noting that the same question is never asked of men in leadership, the 72 year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight pointed to the gendered dimension of members’ ages:
"I knew that my male colleagues...had a jump on me because they didn't have children to stay home [with]. …You got to take off about 14 years from me because I was home raising a family."
Pelosi’s comments raise important questions to consider for today’s class of women officeholders. As has been historically true, do women enter office at later ages than their male counterparts? Are they more likely to wait until their children are older to run and serve? And, finally, what does this mean for increasing women’s representation? Let’s take a look at the newly sworn-in 113th House of Representatives. The average age of all members is about 56 years old, but the key statistic of interest for these questions is the average age at which members took office. In the 113th, the average age of taking office is just over 47 years old, but there is a significant difference between male and female members: women’s average age of entering the House is 50.2 years old and men average 46.7 years old upon taking their congressional oath of office. While not the 14-year expanse cited by Pelosi, this data demonstrates that women continue to enter office – in this case, congressional office – later than their male colleagues, which has implications for institutional seniority and leadership posts. When we include all members into these calculations, some of the most gender-significant age divides – those tied to childbearing and childrearing – may be disguised. Another cut at the congressional membership shows that about 19% of female members in the 113th took office at age 40 or under, compared to 25% of male members. Of the 83 freshman members (64 male, 19 female), 32 men and only 1 woman currently have children under age 18. Put more clearly, half of the new male members come to Washington, DC while their children are still at home and all but one of the new female members either have no children or have adult children. In survey responses, female state legislators are significantly more likely than their male colleagues to say that their decision to run for office was influenced by their children being “old enough.” Not only does this finding have implications for women who start their political career in the state legislatures before heading to Congress, but it also echoes Leader Pelosi’s sentiment regarding the unique responsibilities and considerations that women confront in making the decision to enter public office. Children and families are not the sole source of delay for women. Women’s motivations for office are more likely to emerge from issue involvement over time rather than a long-time desire to hold office, which is more common among men. Moreover, women continue to need greater encouragement to run for office, and often feel the need to gather greater experience and/or training than their male peers. Regardless of the cause for delay, women’s later entry into office at both the state legislative and congressional levels can have real implications for women’s institutional power, political advancement, and ambition and/or ability to seek higher office. At her November press conference, Leader Pelosi expressed hope for the next generation of women leaders, saying, “I want women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age so that their seniority would start to count much sooner.” To meet that desire, more will need to be done to both encourage and enable young women to run for office. A nudge from the first female Speaker of the House is probably not a bad place to start.
And for those who fear gender exclusivity of any stripe, let’s look at recent electoral history. Over 60% of general election U.S. House races in the past decade have been all-male contests, and 85% of uncontested candidates have been men.
About two-thirds of general election races for the U.S. Senate have been between two male candidates, and 80 of 106 gubernatorial races between 2004 and 2012 had no women. In contrast, about 2% of U.S. House races, 4% of U.S. Senate races, and less than 2% of gubernatorial contests in the past decade have been all-female. And of course, men-only races at each of these levels of office only increase the further back we look.
Gender exclusivity in electoral contests should not be a goal, but it has been a reality for male candidates for far too long. For women to increase their political representation, they need to be more present as candidates. And if woman vs. woman races are a surefire way to get more women into office, then maybe an increase in gender exclusivity for women candidates actually means greater gender inclusivity in today’s politics.
- Rhode Island: Democrat Gina Raimondo, if elected, will be the first woman governor of Rhode Island and the first woman to hold two different statewide elected executive offices in that state. Raimondo currently serves as the state treasurer.
- Massachusetts: Democrat Martha Coakley, if elected, will be the second woman governor of Massachusetts. However, she would be the first woman elected governor of the state. Former Lt. Governor Jane Swift (R) served as acting governor in 2001 after then-Governor Paul Cellucci’s resignation.
- Virgin Islands: Democrat Donna Christensen, if elected, will be the first Black woman governor in the United States or territories. Christensen currently serves as one of two Black female delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Wisconsin: Democrat Mary Burke, if elected, will be the first woman governor of Wisconsin.
Today we are focusing on the outlook for women running in U.S. Senate races this year. Neither Senate nor House races feature record numbers of women candidates or nominees this cycle, but we may see a net increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate in January 2015. Much depends on how some of the most competitive Senate races of this cycle break next Tuesday. Candidates and Nominees Thirty-one (15D, 16R) women filed to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. The record number of women filing for the Senate is 36, set in 2010 (19D, 17R) and reached again in 2012 (20D, 16R). This year, 14 (9D, 5R) women have won their primaries, and incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu (D) will be on the November 4th ballot in Louisiana’s same-day primary. The record for women Senate nominees was set in 2012, with 18 women (12D, 6R) making it through their party primaries. There are two woman–versus-woman Senate races this year: in Maine (Susan Collins [R] v. Shenna Bellows [D]) and West Virginia (Shelley Moore Capito [R] v. Natalie Tennant [D]). It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2014, 7 (4D, 3R) women are nominees for open U.S. Senate seats, compared to the 8 (4D, 4R) women running for open seats in 2012. As the charts below show, women have fallen short of making history as candidates, nominees, or open seat nominees in either major political party this year. This is the first election since 1992 in which more Republican women than Democratic women filed for U.S. Senate seats, but more Democratic women made it through their primaries to become Senate nominees. Women in the 114th Congress Twenty (16D, 4R) women currently serve in the U.S. Senate. There are no incumbent women senators stepping down this year, and four (3D, 1R) incumbent women are up for re-election. Sixteen (13D, 3R) incumbent women senators are holdovers who will remain in office through the 114th Congress. Based on the most recent ratings, two more women are very likely to win their Senate races next Tuesday: incumbent Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who is running for an open seat against another female candidate, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D-WV). Six (5D, 1R) more women candidates for the U.S. Senate are in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, including incumbents Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kay Hagen (D-NC), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Two women, Michelle Nunn (D-GA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), are running competitively for open seats, and Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) is challenging incumbent Mitch McConnell in Kentucky’s contentious Senate contest. Thus women are major party nominees in many of the races that will determine the partisan balance of power in the U.S. Senate, including six of the ten toss-up contests identified by Cook. Only two women of color, Connie Johnson (D-OK) and Joyce Dickerson (D-SC), are major party Senate nominees this year, and both are unlikely to win their races, leaving Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) as the only woman of color in the U.S. Senate in the 114th Congress. In 2012, a record 5 (4D, 1R) new women were elected to the U.S. Senate. We are unlikely to exceed that number of new women winning this year. What to Watch on Election Day In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. Senate seats on Election Day and closely monitoring the most competitive races with women running (see table above), we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- Georgia: Democrat Michelle Nunn, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia. Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in 1922, but only served for one day. Nunn, daughter of former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn (D), would also become the second daughter of a former U.S. Senator to serve in the upper chamber of Congress. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was appointed to the Senate by her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002 to fill his vacant seat. She has since been re-elected twice to her Senate seat.
- Iowa: Republican Joni Ernst, if elected, will be the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Iowa. Iowa is one of four states (DE, IA, MS, VT) that has never sent a woman to Congress. Ernst would also be the first female military veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.
- Kentucky: Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky, as well as the first Democratic woman elected to the U.S. Congress from that state. Grimes would also become the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, elected at 35 and turning 36 before January 2015. Former Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-AR), the youngest woman to serve in the U.S. Senate to date, was elected and sworn in at age 38.
- West Virginia: Republican Shelley Moore Capito is leading Democrat Natalie Tennant in a race to become the first woman Senator from West Virginia. If elected, Capito – currently a member of the U.S. House - will be the 11th woman ever to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate.
On a less positive note, no more than one incumbent woman Senator has ever lost her re-election in any previous election year. However, three female incumbents are in races considered toss-ups this year. For the latest numbers and information about women running for office in 2014, visit CAWP’s Election Watch 2014 and check out our next post on women running for governor this year. You can also follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter by using the hashtag #WomenRun2014.
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2014, 18 (11D, 7R) women are nominees for open U.S. House seats, compared to the record high of 39 (26D, 13R) women running for open seats in 1992. As the charts below show, women have fallen short of making history as candidates, nominees, or open seat nominees in either major political party this year. However, while the number of female nominees dropped between 2012 and 2014 for Democratic women House candidates, there was a slight increase, from 48 to 50 nominees, among Republican women candidates, with the Louisiana race still pending.Women in the 114th Congress
- AZ-2: Republican Martha McSally, if elected, will be the first Republican woman ever elected to Congress from Arizona.
- IA-3: Democrat Staci Appel, if elected, will be the first woman ever elected to the U.S. House from Iowa. Iowa is one of four states (DE, IA, MS, VT) that has never sent a woman to Congress.
- NJ-12: Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman, if elected, will be the first Black woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. She will also be the first woman in New Jersey’s congressional delegation since 2003.
- NY-21: Republican Elise Stefanik, if elected, will be the youngest woman ever sworn in to Congress at age 30. The youngest women to be sworn in to date were 31 years old.
- UT-4: Republican Mia Love, if elected, will be the first Black Republican woman to be elected to Congress. She will also be the first Black woman, and only the fourth woman, to ever serve in Utah’s congressional delegation.
- VA-10: Republican Barbara Comstock, if elected, will be the first woman in Virginia’s congressional delegation since 2009.