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.
- 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.
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.