In the three years since Hillary Clinton “put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” the question remains, “Can America elect a woman president?” There have been countless thought pieces diving into the nuance of of the presidential campaigns of the women running this year and analyzing what factors make them more or less viable than others as we march towards November 2020.
It seems pedestrian to ask the counter question, “Can America elect a man president?” The simple answer is obvious, of course, because we’ve elected men in every U.S. presidential election. But perhaps raising this question would help to illuminate the additional work women have to do to first establish that they can win before going about the business of winning. Included in that work is calling out the biases that put women at a disadvantage in American elections.
The women running for president in the 2020 election, in a likely uncoordinated effort, are doing this work, holding a mirror up to the face of American politics in the hope that we, as a nation, will see what our bias against women’s leadership really looks like. But they are not the first or only women to disrupt assumptions or expectations.
It has been well documented that women attempting to re-shape elected leadership in America face the question of their viability regardless of their qualifications, experience, resources and know-how. Women of color are the ones most often crippled by this question. Early in 2019, as the field for the 2020 presidential election was coming together, questions swirled around Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams and whether or not she was a viable candidate. During her gubernatorial campaign, Abrams lost her election by 55,000 votes (1.4%) out of more than 3 million cast. She received over 250,000 more votes than the last two democrats to run statewide (Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn) and yet there was a question as to whether she had what it took to win. By all accounts Abrams’ candidacy changed the perspective on the possibilities that exist for black women’s executive leadership, particularly in the South.
Beto O’Rourke also came incredibly close to winning a seat that many deemed not competitive in 2018. He lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in Texas by 215,000 votes (2.6%), out of more than 8.3 million cast. O’Rourke was immediately added to the list of candidates declared and undeclared as discussion swirled in the media and the donor class as to who would be the Democratic standard-bearer in 2020. Abrams was not.
On paper, race and gender were the only two factors that differentiated these two trailblazing leaders. These factors have prevented so many women candidates of color from being able to get the traction necessary to have a successful campaign.
Why? In a recent survey, Fast Company found a majority of women entrepreneurs surveyed didn’t think a woman would be elected president because “sexism is still prevalent among the electorate.” Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds in their report that though bias against female politicians has declined over time, 13% of voters still report that women are less suited emotionally for political office than men. They conclude, “The role that sexism plays in politics is shrinking, but it’s still too substantial to ignore.”
So what’s a woman to do?
Most recently Kamala Harris asked voters at a Nevada town hall if American was ready to elect a woman president. The response from the audience was an honest but shocking “No!” The press reported it as a gaffe by the campaign, showing that the candidate is out of touch with the electorate, but I disagree. Though the audience’s response may have been different than the campaign expected (or wanted), it reflected the bias that Harris later elaborated on in her stump speech. In late September, she told an audience that she was used to dealing with the electability question, but added, “I have faith in the American people to know we will never be burdened by assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.”
Though Elizabeth Warren has taken the lead in several polls and is one of the top fundraisers in the Deomcratic field, the question of her likability seems to be a hurdle she must clear for some as she continues to make indisputable gains in the polls. Axios conducted a small focus group of women in Wisconsin who mostly supported Warren’s policies, but doubted her electibility and her ability to lead based on how much they liked her style instead of her substance. This underscores the doubts some people have about women in leadership - that success is not determined by experience or background, as it is with most male candidates, but instead comes down to whether or not we like her. Warren, like Harris, has pushed back against claims that her gender will work to her disadvantage, emphasizing that she has proved doubters wrong before and plans to again in 2020.
Each woman in the presidential race has taken on the question of what makes them viable. They have answered the question directly and indirectly on many occasions. More often than not they answer by bringing their authentic selves to the campaign trail, speaking about their lived experiences as women in America and how those experiences inform their policies and platforms. By highlighting the difference in life experience from their opponents or predecessors, these women might offer an answer to the question, “Why aren’t we ready to elect a woman president?” Do voters fear that bringing more voices to the table will change the power dynamic too much? When we as a nation look in the mirror, are we surprised to find ourselves nodding yes?
Early in the 2018 campaign, Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), and I issued a note of caution about the gender progress we would see as a result of the midterm elections. Our motto was “under-promise and over-deliver,” noting that gender parity for women in American politics was not going to be achieved in any single election year. While many did not heed our caution (narratives of the “surge” and the “women’s wave” abounded), 2018 proved us right. Gender disparities and gendered barriers in American politics were not upended in a single cycle, but the 2018 election delivered key points of progress that will shape the terrain that candidates are navigating in election 2020 and beyond. The 2018 election also left those of us committed to more equitable political institutions with a reminder that we have unfinished business left to address in 2020 and beyond.
This is the focus of CAWP’s new report, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, which draws from CAWP’s unmatched data and a review of the latest research on gender, candidacy, and representation to outline what happened with women candidates in 2018 while acting as a guide for gender and intersectional dynamics to watch for in election 2020. A key section of the report outlines both the destruction and durability of gendered and intersectional barriers to women’s political advancement, reminding us that gender equality is a work in progress– not a marker of success in any single “year of the woman.”
Just as the story of gender in election 2018 is much more complex than simply celebrating a “surge” in women running and winning, so too is our evaluation of gender and intersectional dynamics in 2018 and beyond. But here are a few take-aways for you to consider in reflecting backward and looking forward.
1. Women candidates in election 2018 disrupted the (White male) status quo in American politics and challenged assumptions of how, where, and which women can achieve electoral success.
There is no doubt that women made history in the 2018 election, running for and winning elected office in record numbers. Non-incumbent women won at higher rates than men across most levels of office and were responsible for the majority of congressional, gubernatorial, and statewide elected executive offices that flipped from red to blue. Women of color made history at various levels of office and – perhaps most notably for the future – challenged biased perceptions that they can win over majority-White electorates; more than one-third of women of color elected to the U.S. House for the first time in 2018 won in majority-White districts.
Success went beyond the numbers for women candidates in 2018, however. Many women challenged gender and intersectional biases while campaigning, embraced gender as an electoral asset instead of a hurdle to overcome, and cleared hurdles that have historically deterred or derailed women candidates’ emergence or success.
2. But the 2018 election did not upend durable gender and intersectional disparities in electoral politics and officeholding.
Too often, the gender story of 2018 has been simplified to note the success of one group of women: Democrats. While Democratic women made historic gains in 2018, the number of Republican women officeholders declined at every level of office. Moreover, women’s numeric success simply chipped away at centuries-long exclusion and underrepresentation of women, and especially women of color, in American political institutions. Even amidst the “surge,” women were less than 25% of all candidates in 2018 and are less than one-third of officeholders from the state legislative level upward in 2019.
Beyond persistent inequities in the numbers, women continue to face electoral challenges that are distinct from men: party and financial support infrastructures vary by gender and race; stereotypes and sexism continue to shape candidate evaluation; women candidates combat sexualized harassment and threats of violence; and gender biases persist in media coverage of and commentary on U.S. campaigns. The ground is shifting in each of these areas, with positive signs of progress for women, but it is certainly premature to declare mission accomplished.
3. Early signs from the 2020 cycle indicate that women will continue to disrupt U.S. electoral politics.
While 2018 revealed the durability of gendered and intersectional hurdles to women’s political progress, it also provided evidence of women candidates disrupting both formal and informal rules of the game in U.S. campaigns. That disruption is likely to continue in the 2020 election. From the record number of women running for the presidency – and their unabashed (but also diverse) embrace of identity – to women who are no longer “waiting their turn” to run for office, the gender story of election 2020 will be well worth watching. Importantly, that story also includes the men – especially the White men who, perhaps for the first time, are being asked to address their privilege as a potential liability for their presidential bids instead of assuming that their race and gender identities provide only electoral advantages.
The 2020 election is replete with narratives to watch, foremost among them the impeachment and potential re-election of President Donald Trump. But evaluating the complexities of gender and race across party and levels of office in 2020 will be key to telling the full story of what happens in another historic election year. With just over one year until Election Day 2020, our report gives you a head start and some tips for what to watch for as the cycle plays out. So read up because the work is not done.
*Updated as of August 2019. Please check our permanent page on this topic for the most up-to-date information.
In May 2018, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) ruled that Liuba Grechen Shirley, a congressional candidate from New York, could use campaign funds to cover her campaign-related childcare expenses. The FEC issued a similar ruling in 2019 about congressional candidate MJ Hegar (which builds on the previous ruling although the circumstances were slightly different, thus requiring separate rulings). The Shirley ruling spurred several candidates to seek clarity on the rules regarding campaign funds and childcare expenses at the state level. Both legislative and administrative channels have been employed to expand access to the use of campaign funding for relevant childcare expenses.
Most states’ laws are silent on the issue of allowing campaign funds for campaign-related childcare expenses. Of the 13 states which currently allow or have allowed campaign funds for childcare, only four states have enshrined the practice into law. A 2018 Minnesota statute specifically lists campaign-related childcare as an allowable expense for campaign funds. Utah passed a bill in March 2019 allowing campaign funds to be used for campaign-related childcare expenses, followed by Colorado in May 2019 and New York in June 2019. California, New Jersey, and New Hampshire have bills allowing the practice pending in their legislature.
Two states specifically prohibit the practice, and in a third an attempt to allow it was rejected by the legislature. In Massachusetts, current state law bars candidates from using campaign funds for personal expenses, and a bill allowing campaign funds for childcare stalled in the legislature in 2018. In West Virginia, state law prohibits using campaign funds for childcare expenses. In Tennessee, a proposed bill allowing the practice was killed by the Tennessee House Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee in March 2019.
In most cases, the decision to allow this practice is decided on a case by case basis by the relevant elections or ethics authority in the state. In 7 states, elections/ethics commissions have issued recent advisory opinions in favor of allowing candidates to use campaign funds for campaign-related childcare (Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin).
Two additional states’ commissions allow the practice to some degree. The Connecticut State Elections Commission issued a ruling in April 2019 stating that privately used funds can be used for campaign-related childcare expenses; public financing cannot be. Since most candidates use public funds for their campaigns, this effectively limits the use of campaign funds for childcare to a small pool of candidates. The California Fair Political Practices Commission allows candidates to use campaign funds for childcare at a cap of $200 per campaign event. Pending legislation would remove the cap and codify the allowance of campaign funds for childcare into law.
In Iowa, on the other hand, a request from a candidate in July 2018 to use campaign funds for childcare was rejected by the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. The board noted that the policy decision was best left to the legislature to decide and proposed a bill to allow the practice. As of July 2019, the bill has no sponsors in the legislature.
Most advisory opinions issued by commissions note that state law does not specifically address the issue, and some opinions encourage the legislature to take the matter on and formally enshrine the practice into law, as did Iowa’s ethics board. While advisory opinions set precedents and provide guidance for future candidates, because the matter isn’t settled by law, it often means that individual candidates would have to be approved on a case by case basis. Ultimately, legislation is the most effective guarantee of ensuring that the campaign funds can be used for campaign-related childcare.
To view the full list by state, visit: TABLE: Use of Campaign Funds for Childcare Expenses, By State
When Serena Williams lost the Wimbledon final last weekend, some on-screen analysts and news outlets led with the number six — noting that this is the sixth time that Williams has lost a major final. They chose that number over 23, the number of major finals that Williams has won over the course of her historic career. This choice shaped the tone of the coverage, framing this loss as one in a pattern instead of emphasizing that it stands apart from Williams’ norm of success. It demonstrates the importance of context and framing in reporting numbers, whether in sports or any other field.
In politics, the work we do at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) is grounded in numbers. For nearly 50 years, we have tracked the number of women in elected office and, more recently, have collected data on women’s candidacies across levels of office. We know that collecting and reporting this data is more than just counting beans; these data tell a story about whose voices are being heard in politics and government (and whose are not) and help to illuminate obstruction points en route to greater diversity among political elites. To tell an accurate story, however, it’s incredibly important that we are clear about what our numbers represent and provide the context by which they can be best understood. This puts pressure on all of us to check the facts and, where possible, push journalists to do the same.
In their analysis of BBC news in 2016, Stephen Cushion, Justin Lewis, and Robert Callaghan find that only around a third of statistics referenced in news reports were both clear and presented with context; the remainder of references were lacking in either or both. While they tout the “democratic potential of statistical evidence,” their findings demonstrate the need for scrutiny, especially in a media environment that incentivizes the reporting of numbers that are eye-catching, or at least click-catching.
That’s why in 2018 we kicked off the campaign cycle by remindingjournalists and observers that a record number of women candidates was just one step toward gender parity in government; despite running in record numbers, women were still less than 25% of all candidates for the U.S. House, for example, and — even with their successes — they hold just 23.4% of U.S. House seats today. We also urged clarity in reporting other numbers in 2018 — such as those released by women’s organizations that showed heightened engagement or interest among women with their work. These data, such as the 16,000 women who signed up online to get more information from EMILY’s List about running for office in the first 9 months of 2017, were notable on their own and indicative that more women were paying attention to the political sphere (and their roles in it) than before, but they did not equal candidacies. When conflated with candidate numbers, it would be easy for members of the public to miss out on the very real hurdles that women must clear between initial interest and actually running for political office, let alone winning an election.
As we head into the 2020 election, there are similar risks of conflation. For example, recent reporting that describes a rise in Republican women’s congressional candidacies relies heavily on the National Republican Campaign Committee’s (NRCC) calculation of women who have expressed an interest in running for the U.S. House in 2020. That number, close to 200 by their recent count, is far from the 60 Republican women that we have determined as likely to run for the U.S. House based upon filings and/or publicly-stated intentions to run (as of late June 2019). This number is still notable when compared to the 37 Republican women House candidates we counted at this point in 2017, but it is far from the hundred-plus women that have contributed to a narrative implying a surge of Republican women candidates in election 2020. Moreover, the number of Republican women candidates should not be viewed in isolation. In 2018, they were just 13.7%of all Republican House candidates (while a third of Democratic candidates were women). Another measure of progress in 2020 will be how well represented women candidates are within their own party ranks.
Accuracy alone is an important reason for checking numbers like this as we head into our next election season. Our attention to numbers matters for setting reasonable expectations. If Republicans tout close to 200 women running in July 2019 and the final count of filed House candidates falls below that in 2020, the narrative will remain one of Republican women falling short. Likewise, if we emphasize raw counts instead of minding denominators that account for men, we risk inflating the sense of success that is possible. However, if the more realistic numbers are reported from the start, any gain in Republican women’s candidacies — and officeholding — can be touted as a win come November 2020.
When it comes to women’s political representation, in our experience at CAWP we find it’s best to under-promise and over-deliver. And while we know that success for women in politics goes well beyond the numbers, it’s key that we get the numbers right.
The drop in Republican women’s representation in the U.S. House – down to 13 women who hold just 6.6% of all Republican House seats – garnered national attention amidst what was otherwise perceived as a “year of the woman” in American politics. But the problem of Republican women’s underrepresentation is not isolated to Congress. Not only are Republican women underrepresented as a proportion of women and Republican state legislators, but they also hold less power in the state legislatures with the greatest potential for them to make policy change.
Perhaps most notably, Republican women are only 16% of Republican state legislators in states where Republicans control both state legislative chambers, while they are 20.7% of Republican legislators in states where the GOP is in the minority. The reverse is true for Democratic women; in states under Democratic control, women are slightly better represented (43.1%) than in states where they are not in control (40.6%). Thus, Democratic women legislators are better positioned to influence policy agendas and outcomes than their Republican counterparts.
We can cut the numbers other ways, too. While women are 41.9% of all Democratic state legislators nationwide, they are just 17.2% of Republican state legislators. Democratic women are at or above parity with their male partisans in nine state legislatures (Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, and Utah), while Hawaii is the only state where Republican women are equally represented with men in their (highly-underrepresented) party (women are 3 of just 6 Republicans serving across both chambers).
There is only one Republican-controlled state legislature where Republican women near parity with men; in Alaska today, women are 44.4% of all Republican officeholders. In the Alaska House, Republican women fall just short (47.8%) of parity with men in their party’s caucus. Alaska is an outlier in other ways, too, as home to the only Republican-majority state legislature where Republican women are better represented in-party than Democratic women (Democratic women hold 31.8% of their party’s seats), and as one of just five states where a Republican woman currently serves as senate president or senate president pro tem (43 Republicans hold those posts nationwide).
Apart from Alaska, Republican women hold no more than 30% of their party’s seats in the other 29 state legislatures under Republican control. In contrast, women hold at least 30% of Democratic seats in the 18 state legislatures currently under Democratic control. Democratic women actually outnumber Democratic men in four state legislatures: Nevada – where women are the majority of all state legislators for the first time in history, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon.
Republican women are also less likely to hold top leadership spots in state legislatures where Republicans are in control. Of the 23 women who hold top state legislative leadership posts (senate presidents or presidents pro tem, or speakers of state houses), six (26%) are Republicans and 17 (74%) are Democrats. Women are 11.6% of Republican senate presidents and presidents pro tem, while they are 42.3% of Democrats who hold the same posts. Likewise, while women are nearly one-third of Democratic House speakers nationwide, just one of 30 Republican House speakers is a woman.
These data demonstrate that the dearth of Republican women in state legislatures overall is compounded by even more severe underrepresentation among those leading state legislative chambers. While the narrative around women’s political underrepresentation has focused on federal offices, it’s important to note that this problem persists at the state legislative level. That is, unless you’re in Alaska.
At the end of the 2018 midterm cycle, our friends and collaborators at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation published a new research memo, Relaunch: Resilience and Rebuilding for Women Candidates After an Electoral Loss, that looked at voter perceptions of losing candidates and how those candidates might make a successful electoral appeal moving forward. This piqued our interest. A record number of women ran for office last year, yes, and a record number won. But, among the races we track*, 2,172 women also lost an election in 2018, and that’s just general election losses. What’s next for them?
For more than forty women who ran for Congress or statewide office, getting knocked down in 2018 means getting up again in 2020. As part of our Buzz 2020 candidate-tracking project, we’ve been keeping tabs on all the rumored 2020 candidates who ran congressional and statewide campaigns in 2018 but weren’t ultimately successful. Of the 593 women who lost primary or general election bids in these races during the last cycle, we’ve counted 43 thus far who are already moving towards a 2020 campaign. Some of these candidates, like Brianna Wu in Massachusetts, lost primary contests. Others cleared the primary but fell in the general, Texas’s Gina Ortiz Jones among them. There are rematches brewing, like Georgia’s Karen Handel, who’s preparing a campaign against Rep. Lucy McBath after McBath knocked her out of the Georgia 6th seat in 2018. Then there are candidates like Amy McGrath and M.J. Hegar, who are parlaying star-making but ultimately unsuccessful 2018 House runs into 2020 challenges against entrenched Senate incumbents.**
While much research has detailed the distinct hurdles to candidacy for women, Dr. Danielle Thomsen's research on candidate reemergence (from 1980 to 2014) finds no significant gender difference in U.S. House candidates' decision to run again. Relaunch, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation research, provides a game plan to guide that reemergence. First of all, they find that an electoral loss does not lead to shifts in favorability ratings and voters’ perceptions of candidate qualifications, and they outline strategies for messaging and engagement that their study shows can create the groundwork for future success. On messaging, Relaunch encourages candidates to stay positive, avoid laying blame, emphasize the campaign’s strengths and successes, and focus their forward-looking message on the collective energy of the campaign and its supporters, rather than solely on the candidate. Between campaigns, candidates should stay engaged with the issues that they ran on and with the community that makes up their potential constituency. Candidates who were already holding another political office should emphasize the continuing contributions they make in their current position. Otherwise, women hoping to run again should stay engaged with listening tours, becoming active in their party, and getting involved in activism on specific issues related to their past (and future) campaigns.
It takes more women running to get more women winning. It’s the only path to political parity. As with anything worth doing, it takes experience and practice to forge talent into success, so these women who have chanced a campaign, the near-misses and the longshots, aren’t just people who have lost elections; they’re a pool of experienced and practiced campaigners poised to win. They got knocked down. But they got up again. You’re never going to keep them down.
See all the returning candidates at our Election Watch page, Rebound Candidates: Women congressional and statewide candidates who lost in 2018 and are likely to run again in 2020.
*U.S. Congress, statewide elected executive offices (including governor), and state legislative candidates.
**How are we tracking rumored candidates when filing deadlines are months away? This information comes from at least two of the following sources: KnowWho Data Services; Campaigns and Elections; House Race Hotline; CQ Politics Daily; Politics1.com; The Hill; Roll Call; and local newspapers in many states.
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.
At the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), we have been getting a lot of inquiries about how to get politically engaged and how to encourage other women to do so. Below is a list of ideas and action steps to keep you inspired and engaged. Please share widely, and contact me if you have other ideas I should add. Happy holidays!
Take a Seat at the Table (and help other women pull up their chairs)
The late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” The fastest and most effective way to make change at policymaking tables is to sit there. Help women take their seats by helping build and sustain the infrastructure needed for women to be successful public leaders.
- Run for office. Sign up for a campaign training program in your area. CAWP has a National Network of Ready to Run® Campaign Trainings for Women around the country. If there’s not one in your state, check out our map of political and leadership resources for women. There are a whole host of organizations, including She Should Run, Emerge America, the Excellence in Public Service Series, and more. Check them out!
- Ask a woman to run. And then tell her you will help her, and find others to help her (and follow through.) And then ask another woman. And another. And another, and…well, you get the idea. If you are already an elected official, it’s particularly important to encourage a woman (or women) you know to run for office. Research that shows that women are far less likely than men to get asked to run for office by formal political actors, including other elected officials and party leaders. Your encouragement could make all the difference. Thank you for your service!
- Start a campaign training program to encourage other women to run. Connect with CAWP on how to launch Ready to Run® in your state. Our programs are nonpartisan, but if party or certain issues are your thing, check out any of the organizations mentioned or on our map.
- Get appointed to office. Did you know that there are hundreds of thousands of positions available on state, county and local boards and commissions around the country? Did you also know that appointed positions often have significant policymaking authority? Start researching the boards and commissions in your town, county, or state and find out how to get appointed to the ones that interest you. Feel overwhelmed about how to start? One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from a woman who was concerned about an environmental issue in her town. She found the local commission responsible for overseeing that issue and made a point of showing up at each meeting and asking at least one questions publicly. She began to build her public profile on that issue. She eventually became a member of that commission.
- Start a project to encourage other women to seek appointive office. During open gubernatorial election years, CAWP runs a Bipartisan Coalition for Women’s Appointments here in New Jersey. The goals are: to create the expectation within both major parties and the campaigns of their gubernatorial candidates that women will be included in significant state government positions in even greater numbers than in any past administration at every level of appointment – from cabinet positions to unpaid boards and commissions; and to create a “talent bank” of resumes from New Jersey women interested in being considered for appointments in the next administration.Other states have had appointments projects. Interested in creating one in your state? Contact me.
- Read this case study on New Jersey by scholars Susan J. Carroll and Kelly Dittmar. It examines the reasons why New Jersey was able to rise from the bottom ten of all states for women serving in its legislature to the top of the pile (we currently rank 11th.) It was mix of factors, but one thing is for certain: change required intervention and lots of people paying attention. Use it to start discussions with other women leaders in your state about how to build a political infrastructure supportive of women candidates.
- Start, join, and support an organization dedicated to political parity. A number of groups exist all over the country, including the ones mentioned earlier, but also the National Women’s Political Caucus, Higher Heights for America, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), the National Congress of Black Women, and many more. Look for resources in your state on our resource map; if there isn’t an organization, think about creating the infrastructure yourself. Over the years, I’ve met women from around the country who took a look around their state and realized that there wasn’t an organization or network dedicated to women’s public leadership or parity, so they started their own. Women Lead Arkansas and the Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida are just two examples. It takes a lot of work, but we need more of us.
- Join your party organization. Information can be found on the national Democratic and Republican party organization sites.
- Seek party leadership position. If you are already a member of a political party, seek out an official leadership role with the party organization. In New Jersey, for example, all but two counties have male party chairs. Time for some women at the helm.
- If you are already a party leader, take the time to mentor women who could come along the leadership ladder with you. (See #2 above.) Lift as you climb!
- Volunteer on a campaign. Take the time to volunteer and learn as much as you can about the campaign and political campaign organizing. Take a campaign training class (see #1.)
Give as much as you can, depending on your circumstances. I guarantee you, no amount is too small. Give more if you are in a position to. But seriously, money talks. Give money to the people and causes you support. Try to make it a regular part of your giving – not just at election time, but all throughout the year. Women candidates face challenges raising money, according to Open Secrets.org.
- Give to women candidates. Even if they don’t live in your district, it’s worth supporting women candidates whose values match yours. You can always find a list of women candidates on CAWP’s Election Watch page – do research on the ones that may be a fit for you. Organizations like Women Count, Maggie’s List, Higher Heights for America, as well as other political action committees (PACs), are useful resources for giving to and finding women candidates. A full list of PACs supporting women candidates can be found on our Political & Leadership Resource Map.
- Start a PAC supporting women candidates. Here’s a quick answer guide from the Federal Election Commission, but for state or local PACs, you will want to check your state’s election commission for state-specific rules and guidelines. Campaigns for federal office are governed by federal rules, while campaigns within a state are governed by the rules of the state.
- Give money to advocacy organizations focused on issues you believe in. Pick at least one or two causes that are most important to you, and find the organizations that best meet your goals on those issues. Sign up to be a regular supporter – remember, no amount is too small. Once a year, evaluate your advocacy giving and readjust. Can you give more? Are there other issues about which you have become passionate?
- Follow the money. Use OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, to look up where candidates or PACs are getting their money and how they are spending it. Use this to make informed decisions about where to spend your own money and to advocate for transparency in campaign finance.
- Support the work of research centers and scholars dedicated to studying women’s public leadership. Well, this is an outright ask: we need your support. The Center for American Women and Politics has been dedicated to examining and tracking women’s political participation over the past 45 years. We simply cannot do this work without the support of our generous donors. Other organizations include the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center at Iowa State University, the Center for Women’s Leadership at Portland State University, the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many more can be found at our Political & Leadership Resource Map.
Become a Citizen Lobbyist
Our democracy hinges on participation from many people. If you are not running for office, you can have a voice in legislative processes in a variety of ways.
- Attend legislative hearings. Open public hearings happen all over the country almost every week. Look at the schedule for upcoming hearings on issues or committees you care about. Take a drive to your statehouse and check them out. Learn about the process. Get to know the elected officials working on the issues you care about (committee members, etc.)
- Give testimony at legislative hearings. Anyone can sign up to give testimony at a hearing. Make your voice heard. Do your research and prepare your remarks. Here’s a handy guide from the Oregon Legislature on how to give testimony.
- Contact your elected representatives. Write, email and call your elected officials – the only way they know how you feel about an issue is if they hear from you. Make this a regular habit; don’t take for granted that others are doing it or tell yourself it doesn’t matter. As this former Congressional staffer pointed out, it does matter (she also gives great tips on how best to contact members of Congress, but don’t stop there. Find out how your state and local representatives are, and make a point to contact them about state and local issues.)
Groom the Next Generation
It’s more important than ever to provide the tools and resources to help young people rethink leadership and refocus the picture, because if a girl can’t imagine a woman leader, how can she become one? And if a boy sees only men in leadership roles, what will convince him to support aspiring women leaders?
- Invite a woman public leader to speak to your classroom or youth group. CAWP created our Teach a Girl to Lead™ (TAG) project to make women’s public leadership visible to the next generation. What better way to do that than have women public leaders talk to kids about politics and government? For sample invitation letters and discussion points, go here.
- Assign readings on women's political leadership to students, or read with your kids. Plenty of book suggestions by age, from kindergarten through adults, can be found here. Have a family movie night coming up? Suggestions can be found here.
- Arrange to take a class or youth group on a statehouse tour with a gender lens.
- Incorporate these exercises and activities about women’s public leadership in classrooms or youth programs.
- Talk to kids about politics and government. Explain, early and often, what it means to be a good citizen and to be part of a participatory democracy. Answer their questions. Take them with you to legislative hearings and other public events. Point out city hall when you drive by. Tell them why you served on jury duty recently. Talk about things you like and things you’d like to change in your government. Make public service and government a regular part of life for them.
- Support organizations dedicated to building girls’ political leadership. Our Teach a Girl to Lead™ project needs your support to continue to provide new resources and programs. There are also several organizations dedicated to girls political leadership, including IGNITE, Running Start, and the Girls and Politics Institute. Spread the word. Donate scholarships to make it possible for more girls, particularly those from underserved populations, to participate. Donate to our Teach a Girl to Lead™ project!
Build Your Personal Leadership Style & Feed Your (Civic-Minded) Soul
Sometimes you need inspiration or advice on your road to public leadership.
- Talk to an elected woman or a woman party leader. Make an appointment or, if you know her personally, invite her for a cup of coffee. Ask her these questions: why did you run? What is the best thing about public service? How can I be of help to you?
- Read a biography about a women public leader. Here are few suggestions to get started: Eleanor Roosevelt’s You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick. More can be found on our Teach a Girl to Lead™ site (filtered by age for grown-up titles.)
- Find your own public voice. Lots of people are nervous about public speaking, but you have to be able to articulate your message and inspire your audience. Learn how to do that by reading The Well-Spoken Woman by expert Christine Jahnke.
- Watch women public leaders tell you their stories on MAKERS.com. You can find more video conversations with women leaders here.
Above all, get and stay involved. Go forth and lead!