What does the record number of all-woman congressional contests signal about gender dynamics of U.S. elections?

 

There will be more all-woman congressional contests on the ballot in November 2020 than ever before. With primaries yet to be decided in four states, women have already secured both Democratic and Republican major-party nominations in 51 contests for the U.S. House and Senate. That number will rise before Election Day and is significantly greater than the previous record of 33 all-woman congressional contests, which was set in 2018.

 

This statistic is notable, but what does this signal about gender progress in U.S. elections? And what does it mean for the gender dynamics in U.S. campaigns?

The record number of all-woman congressional contests is yet another indicator that women are challenging the dominance of men in our political elections and institutions. Going into this year’s elections, a record 127 (105D, 22R) women serve in Congress. The 2020 election has already seen new records for women candidates and nominees in U.S. House and Senate contests. Women are also a greater proportion of all congressional candidates and nominees than they were in 2018, a record-setting year frequently characterized by women’s electoral success.

The record number of all-woman congressional contests also indicates that women candidates are winning their primaries. Not only have more women filed than ever, but they are a record number of major-party nominees for the U.S. House and Senate this year. The fact that they are competing against each other in higher numbers in November reflects an important shift from 2018; this year, the number of Republican women running and winning nominations is greater than ever, closing – at least somewhat – the party gap among women congressional candidates that was especially stark two years ago. It is only with greater gender parity on both sides of the aisle – in both candidacy and primary election success – that all-woman contests are made more possible.

The reality of all-woman contests also reveals sites where women’s representation in 2021 is all but guaranteed. In particular, there are already 12 all-woman open-seat congressional contests in election 2020, meaning that women are all but guaranteed to pick up 12 new seats, including 11 House seats and 1 Senate seat, in the 117th Congress. Wyoming’s all-woman Senate contest will result in electing the first woman to the U.S. Senate from Wyoming. Another notable outcome of U.S. House primary elections this year is that all six major-party nominees from New Mexico are women, all but assuring an all-woman House delegation in 2021.

One of the continued signals of men’s dominance in electoral politics is the ubiquity of all-man contests and the acceptance of it as the norm. While that dominance persists in 2020, it is on the decline — at least in U.S. House contests. In the 2018 election, women were absent as major-party nominees in 45% of U.S. House contests. In 2020, men will be both major-party nominees in less than 40% of U.S. House contests. All-man contests continue to be more common in U.S. Senate elections; in 2018, 51% of Senate contests were between men. In 2020, that number could be more or less depending on results of five outstanding Senate primaries.

 
 

While a record number of all-woman congressional contests will be on general election ballots in 2020, they are still far less common than all-man or mixed-gender match-ups. In 2020, all-woman contests will be no more than 11% of all congressional contests. That’s up from 7% in 2018, but not a sign we’ve reached gender parity. Put differently, even in 2020, the major-party candidates in a general election congressional contest are at least three times as likely to be all men than they are to be all women.

Just as we should not overstate the gender progress signaled by this year’s increase in all-woman congressional contests, it is important to note that same-gender elections should not be viewed as the ideal in pursuit of gender equality. Trading one model of exclusion or dominance for another is not the goal of those of us promoting greater gender parity in American politics. However, women in U.S. politics are playing catch-up after centuries of men-only elections and men’s overrepresentation in elected office. All-woman congressional contests are just one – albeit small – route to ensuring women’s representational gains.

Finally, as we reflect on the implications of all-woman electoral contests for campaign dynamics, it is imperative to remember that same-gender contests are not “gender neutral.” Gender does not cease being an influential factor in campaigns simply due to shared gender identity among the contenders. One need only look to nearly two centuries of men-only presidential contests to see the role that gender has – and continues – to play; as scholar Jackson Katz has written about extensively, all-men presidential elections have been contested on gendered terrain where masculinity – and specifically white masculinity – has been upheld in strategy and evaluation as the standard by which fitness for presidential office is measured.

All-woman electoral contests certainly present differently gendered terrain to candidates and voters alike because of the different stereotypes associated with women and the greater attention paid to gender sameness when both candidates are women instead of men. In addition to potential challenges of moving media and commentary away from the novelty of woman-only races, my own research and other evidence has noted that women candidates in all-woman contests have sometimes been subject to – or at least concerned about – sexist characterizations of their attempts to challenge or even discredit each other on substance as “catfights,” a characterization rarely if ever made of men who engage in contrast tactics. While those characterizations appear less common today, one only need to go back to  July 2019 to find a prominent political operative – Trump administration counselor Kellyanne Conway – pointing to a heated debate exchange between Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard as a “catfight.”  

Like men, women candidates do not navigate and perform gender on the campaign trail in monolithic ways. One of the starkest and most recent examples of this came in 2018, when Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema faced off in a competitive U.S. Senate election. In that contest, McSally doubled down on an explicitly gendered strategy which characterized Sinema as overly-feminine, vain, and unqualified to handle national security — an issue on which expertise is still more often associated with men. While feminizing her opponent, McSally presented herself in ways more aligned with stereotypes of masculinity and men — as tough, as a veteran, and as someone ready to take on a fight. It would not only be inaccurate, but also irresponsible, to ignore the substantive gender dynamics at play in this and other contests between two women; in fact, we learn a lot in investigating how the gender dynamics of campaigns persist and/or change even when the sex of the candidates is the same.

Having two women on the ballot in so many congressional contests this year should remind us of the diversity among women, including the ways in which gender shapes their self-presentation and strategy. In late 2019, a group of Republican women candidates branded themselves the “conservative squad” to contrast themselves with a group of progressive women who won office for the first time 2018. One of the members of this squad was Beth Van Duyne, who is now running against Candace Valenzuela in Texas’ 23rd congressional district. Gender is far from absent from both women’s campaigns, with Valenzuela – who would be the first Afro-Latina in Congress – introducing herself to voters as both a mother of a young son and daughter of a mother who was a victim of domestic abuse and Van Duyne describing her experience with an ill daughter as motivation to get involved in politics and to support health care choice and privatization. These are just a few examples of how gender remains salient in campaigns despite the shared sex among candidates.

Even in another record year for women in American politics, men’s names will still be most common on general election ballots. But the presence of more all-woman congressional contests than ever this fall signals some progress in disrupting men’s persistent overrepresentation in elections and among officeholders. It should also remind us that same-gender electoral contests are not – nor have ever been – gender neutral.

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.  She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).