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.
Every year, the Center for American Women and Politics supports an internship through the Rutgers-Eagleton Washington Internship Award Program that provides financial assistance to interns in the nation’s capital. This is made possible due to the generosity of Susan N. Wilson in establishing the Katherine K. Neuberger Legacy Fund in honor of her mother, a prominent figure in New Jersey Republican politics. Neuberger Fund internships are awarded to Rutgers University–New Brunswick undergraduates who have secured for themselves a Washington-based political internship. This year’s Neuberger intern is Hallie Meisler, a rising senior majoring in women’s and gender studies with dual minors in political science and comparative and critical race and ethnic studies.
In the following interview, we discuss with Meisler her interests and background in politics and her aspirations for both this internship and her future career.
What inspires you to get involved with politics?
I chose to get into politics to assure that everyone has a voice so not just a minority of views are heard. When I was first able to vote, I naively assumed that voting was the only thing I could do to support the candidate I wanted to get into office. I soon learned that to have an impact on an election, there is much more to do before stepping into the voting booth on Election Day. As I continued my education in Women’s and Gender Studies, I became increasingly frustrated at the lack of female representation in the political sphere. I could not wrap my head around the fact that decisions, for example, on women’s rights were being made almost exclusively by old, white men. This lack of diversity is what fueled my involvement in politics. I knew that if I wanted my voice and those of the vast majority of Americans to be heard, it would be essential that we move to elect representatives who would pursue policies more supportive of women and minorities at all levels of government. Until women and people of color have proportionate representation in politics, I will have work to do.
What was your first election as a voter and what did you feel when you cast your first ballot?
I cast my first vote in the 2016 presidential election. I was so proud to be voting, especially since I voted in Virginia, which was viewed as a swing state at the time. The prospect of the 2016 election had really engaged me in political action—for the first time I was researching the voting records of candidates, reading news stories from various outlets, and staying up late to watch every debate. I wanted to make sure I was informed and prepared to cast my vote wisely. Being able to vote was exciting but made me feel both nervous and filled with hope. Even though voting made feel proud that I had done my civic duty, I realize now that my engagement and my commitment to civic duty was not enough, and how much more voter engagement in my generation was necessary in that election.
In the 2018 election, you volunteered with a congressional campaign. How did you get involved and what was that experience like?
Before the 2018 election, I volunteered with a local organization—NJ 11th for Change—which aims to educate citizens on the voting record of their representatives and to explain how the process of gerrymandering impacted our district. Through this volunteer work, I became passionate about supporting a candidate who reflected the ideals that mattered to the majority of my congressional district. I was compelled to volunteer to ensure that whoever filled the seat in the 11th congressional district would do so with the needs and views I wished to see addressed. Volunteering for Mikie Sherill was an amazing experience for so many reasons. Canvassing and phone banking is no easy task, but it really felt worth it because I believed in the candidate. Working to elect a strong woman made me hopeful about the future of Congress and US politics, in general. Knowing that I had a direct role in helping fill a congressional seat with an amazing female politician made the experience of volunteering for a campaign life-changing, and I knew from that moment on I wanted to dedicate myself to this work.
Why did you want to take this opportunity to intern in Washington, DC?
I chose to seek an internship in Washington, DC to be in the center of the national political sphere. While I could have applied to Planned Parenthood centers all across the country, to be in Washington, D.C. would give me the opportunity to advocate on Capitol Hill and garner support from various representatives for the causes at the heart of preserving the mission of Planned Parenthood Federation. As the future of Planned Parenthood remains increasingly insecure, I felt a pull to be in DC where critical decisions were being made in order to fully advocate as an engaged intern on behalf of the many women and men who desperately depend on this organization for critical health care.
How did you choose the organization you'll be interning with?
I have been volunteering for various Planned Parenthoods across the country, as well as participating in the Rutgers chapter of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. I have done research papers on the founder of the organization, and I was given the ultimate privilege as a scholar at the Institute for Women’s Leadership to interview Cecile Richards, the former president. I am so thankful that the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the Neuberger Fund have recognized me with the opportunity to fulfill a career goal.
What do you hope to get out of your DC political internship experience?
I hope to grow as a political organizer and refine my skills as a communicator for the causes I am passionate about. I know that if I can learn to effectively organize and advocate in the center of US governance—Washington DC—I will be able to employ the skills gained wherever I go after I graduate. Since this is my first internship, I hope this summer experience will instill in me a level of motivation to continue to advocate for more women and issues of social justice in the political sphere.
Is there anything you're trepidatious about in taking on this internship?
Even as I am passionate about the causes pursued by this organization, I am sure that I will come across individuals throughout my internship who will question my efforts. I recognize that this will bring an added level of challenge and difficulty to my role, but I also realize that engaging with individuals who have different viewpoints is often the most important way to make progress. As a public advocacy intern, I welcome the challenge to connect with everyone, not just those who share my ideals, and I am sure this will further enrich my experience and strengthen my skills as a communicator and advocate.
What do you hope to get out of your stay in DC outside of your direct internship experience?
Throughout my time in DC, I hope to strengthen my networking skills. I am keenly aware of how important it is to make connections with political leaders and those in government. So, while I am in the seat of the US government, I hope to maximize my time and experiences meeting others who seek to advocate for other compelling social justice causes. Especially as a woman in a heavily male environment, I know how important it is to make connections with a wide range of professionals. In this way, I hope to challenge myself to reach out to people who can mentor me, give me advice, and help further my aspirations.
What are your goals in terms of your own political engagement and career?
My ultimate career goal is to work to empower and elect more women to positions in the political sphere—whether that means working with organizations that support women who are considering running for office, seeking to recruit potential female candidates, or working on campaigns for women I would like to help get elected.
Stay tuned to the CAWP blog later this summer for a guest post from Hallie about her internship experiences and how her D.C. summer has impacted her planning for her future in politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Opinions expressed by interviewees do not represent the opinions of the Center.
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.
Fifty years to the day that Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, five new Black women won seats in the U.S. House. In January, they will join 17 other incumbent Black women representatives, two Black women delegates, and one Black woman senator to represent the largest cohort of Black congresswomen to ever serve in Congress. Black women also surpassed the previous high for U.S. House nominations. In 2014, 29 Black women were major party nominees to be voting members of the U.S. House. In 2018, 41 Black women were on general election House ballots nationwide.
None of the five new Black congresswomen had an easy path to success in 2018. Three challenged incumbent officeholders in the primary or general election, two won their primary nominations without the endorsement of their party, and another challenged stereotypes of not only race but religion in becoming one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Their resilience and determination in the face of these challenges mirrors that of Chisholm, who described her motivation to run for president in 1972 in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in this way: “The fact of the matter is we cannot continue to take things as they are…when we see around us that government is not responsive to certain segments of the population.”
Disrupting the status quo and enhancing the representativeness of Congress continued to be a motivating force for Black women candidates in 2018. In fact, three of the five new Black congresswomen elected in 2018 will be the first Black women to represent their states in Congress: Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ihan Omar (D-MN). They will also be the first women of color to serve in their states’ congressional delegations.
While their success is worthy of celebration, the fact that we are still celebrating firsts for Black women in Congress five decades after Chisholm’s win also reflects the persistent underrepresentation of Black women in American politics – and that underrepresentation was not remedied in this record-setting year for women. Black women were about 5% of all House nominees in 2018 and will be just 4.1% of members of Congress in 2019, despite representing nearly 8% of the U.S. population. And consider this: after new members are sworn in next year, just 43 Black women will have ever served in Congress (of more than 12,000 members who held congressional office in U.S. history).
Even starker, only two Black women have ever served in the U.S. Senate and no Black women were major party nominees for the Senate in 2018. Likewise, Black women’s representation in statewide elected executive offices has been – and will remain – especially low. In a year when Stacey Abrams (D-GA) made history as the first Black woman to win a gubernatorial nomination nationwide and Black women were about 12% of all women nominees for statewide executive offices, they were just 2 of 65 women who won statewide executive posts on Election Day (two Black women incumbents were not up for election this year and will hold statewide executive posts in 2019). Both Black women winners were firsts in their states; Tish James became the first Black woman elected statewide (statewide executive office or U.S. Senate) in New York and Juliana Stratton became the first Black woman elected to a statewide executive post in Illinois.
These women candidates are doing the work that Shirley Chisholm did fifty years ago to push through durable barriers to Black women’s political representation. Especially at the statewide level and in majority-white districts, Black women candidates are challenging the idea – too often embraced by political power-brokers – that they cannot appeal to non-minority voters. Look at Representative-elect Lauren Underwood (D-IL), who defeated a four-term Republican incumbent in an Illinois House district where 86% of constituents are white. And despite falling just short of success, Stacey Abrams (D-GA) won a greater percentage of Georgia voters than any other (white male) Democratic nominee since 1998.
There is much to celebrate for Black women in politics in 2018 that goes beyond candidacy and officeholding, including their power at the ballot box and on the front lines of activism and advocacy. But in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm and in honor of what would be her 94th birthday, let’s pair that celebration with a call to action.
Recruit and support Black women candidates. Push back against the biases that doubt Black women’s electoral viability. And help us to move beyond first and only Black women across levels and types of office. Fifty years after Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress, these may be the best gifts you could give to invest in the next generation of her “unbought and unbossed” legacy.
In this record-setting year for women candidates, all eyes are on the campaign trail. But what happens when women are elected? In our new book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters (Oxford 2018), we use personal interviews we conducted with more than two-thirds of the women serving in the 114th Congress (2015-2017), to illuminate how women both experience and affect Congress. From altering the image of political leadership to influencing policy agendas, congresswomen agree that there a multiple ways in which it matters that they are there.
Paving the Way
The Democratic and Republican parties have been engaged in a fierce competition for control of Congress in 2018. Yet women in Congress—Democratic and Republican—largely speak with one voice about the need to have women in politics. In fact, with Democratic women dramatically outnumbering Republican women in Congress, a number of the Democratic women we interviewed even expressed their desire to see more Republican women elected.
Women in Congress see an obligation to broaden the public’s image of politicians, be role models for other women and girls, and tap other women to run. As Kathleen Rice (D-NY) commented, “I would be surprised if every other one of my colleagues didn’t say that they felt an enormous responsibility as a role for young women.” Her Republican colleague Representative Elise Stefanik (NY) similarly observed “You have to be aware that you’re a role model for women, and that’s something that I’ve taken to heart.” And Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) told us that she makes it “a great priority” to encourage talented women she knows to seek a seat in Congress.
There is nothing like seeing women in power to open minds. Representative Joyce Beatty (D-OH) told us “[Having more women of color in Congress] makes a difference when little African American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress.” And Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) noted that girls need to see leadership as an option but also added that “we have to change the minds of boys and boys who support girls.”
The women we interviewed spoke with great pride about their work on behalf of their districts and states. Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) explained her role on the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) committee in working to ensure “the VA is really meeting the needs of our veterans” in her district and across the nation. After all, she noted, “this is a representative government and I’m here to work on behalf of the people that I represent.”
Oftentimes, the policy change women pursue as members of Congress is aimed at women as a group or at subgroups of women. The women we interviewed explained that without women in Congress, gendered experiences, perspectives, and issues might not enter the debate or receive the attention they deserve. As Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) noted, “Most of the voters in this country are women. So they deserve to be represented and have people there that think like they do.” Likewise, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) echoed many of the women we interviewed when she told us how important it is for American women “to see that someone who may have shared their experience—whether it is to be a working mom or whatever it happens to be—[has] a voice at the table.”
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said that she and her female colleagues “carry with us the needs of women and their families.” Oftentimes, legislators’ personal experiences as women, as mothers, as daughters, and as grandmothers inform their policy priorities, leading to “a sense of greater responsibility for the family,” according to Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).
And although they may pursue different policies and disagree with one another on ideological or partisan grounds, the interviews provided many examples of the significance of having women in Congress. As Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) told us, “Democratic women have carried issues that men just didn’t pay attention to or that were not [even] considered issues.” From women’s health to violence against women and family leave, the women we interviewed provided specific examples of legislation they thought would not have been enacted were it not for women in Congress.
Women of color pursue an “expanded agenda” that addresses gender inequality as well as racial inequality. For Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), that means opening doors “in really meaningful ways” for Latinas and other minorities. A woman’s personal experiences with racial inequality and her obligations to underrepresented groups in the district or state can be the basis for both gendered and racialized understandings of a range of issues. This can create racial differences in representational priorities of women legislators. For example, Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI) told us that mass incarceration tended to be a greater priority issue for Black women legislators compared with White women.
Sources of Solidarity
One unexpected finding from our interviews is that women see the feat of winning office as a thread that unites women in Congress. Women in Congress represent different types of districts, have different personal and racial/ethnic backgrounds, and so forth; but they all campaign in what has been a male-dominated sphere. And once in office, they legislate in a male-dominated institution.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) argued “There is a bond among the women members” because of the challenges they face serving in Congress. And Representative Kathleen Rice (D-NY) observed, “We know the struggle of actually trying to put together a winning campaign” with financial and political infrastructure that was “not already premade for us like it is for men.”
Moreover, women’s single-sex activities such as dinners, trips, and softball, can ease partisan divisions and build friendships among women. Thus despite significant partisan polarization in Congress, we find that women in Congress can feel a sense of comradery with their colleagues across the aisle on the basis of gender. The fact of women’s underrepresentation in politics is what makes the presence of women in politics a “big thing,” as Representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY) explained: “We will run into women who will say, ‘Well, so what you’re a woman in Congress? That’s no big thing.’ But actually, it is.”
Just under a month ago, Ohio State Representative Emilia Sykes filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Public Safety for over two years of disparate treatment by security officials at the Statehouse. More specifically, Representative Sykes – one of ten Black women in the Ohio state legislature – cited heightened scrutiny at security checkpoints and direct comments from security officials that she doesn’t “look like a legislator.” A citizen in Oregon seemed to struggle with the same issue this week when she called the police on Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum– the only Black woman in the Oregon House – while she was canvassing a neighborhood in her district for re-election.
Yesterday I filed a complaint w/ the Ohio Dept of Public Safety about repeated scrutiny & questioning by Troopers & Statehouse security. No longer can my race, gender, age, or any other characteristic subject me to differential treatment as I'm serving my community. #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/WkQBPYFk5o— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018
These recent cases reveal the stubborn and biased expectations of political leadership as old, White, and male. Those expectations are deeply rooted in the foundations of our political (and social) institutions, which were built for and by White men, but are reinforced by an indolence or even unwillingness to reimagine political leadership in ways that expand access to those historically excluded from officeholding.
In addition to age, citizenship, and residency requirements for holding federal office, state constitutions established requirements for candidacy and officeholding based on religious belief, educational attainment, and property ownership for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. These formal sites for exclusion from the political system were bolstered by informal modes of exclusion with disparate effects on women and people of color, some which persist to present day (think, for example, of the costs of campaigning and/or the role of “insider” networks in candidate recruitment, endorsement, and funding, to say nothing of the physical and emotional risks of running for office in racist and sexist environments). It’s little surprise, then, that of the 12,249 individuals that have served in Congress to date, just 322 (2.6%) have been women and 61 (0.5%) have been women of color.
Even for the women who have fought successfully for inclusion into our political institutions, efforts to exclude or marginalize them have continued. In the documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, Representative Shirley Chisholm (NY) – the first Black woman in Congress – describes being repeatedly heckled by a White, male colleague who couldn’t believe that they earned the same salary. While she successfully confronted him to stop his behavior, Chisholm’s experience reflects the unwillingness of some to accept changes in the allocation of political power.
More than three decades letter, Representative Linda Sánchez (CA) entered Congress as one of just seven Latinas in the 108th Congress and the only Latina under 40 years old. In an interview for our forthcoming book on the impact of women in Congress, Representative Sánchez described a situation strikingly similar to Representative Sykes’ interactions with Ohio Statehouse security.
Representative Sánchez recounted being stopped repeatedly at security checkpoints in the Capitol to show her member identification, despite wearing her member pin and even after multiple instances of proving herself to be an elected representative. Describing how this felt, she told us, “When you are walking with male colleagues and the male colleagues are waved through and they’re stopping you, the subtle message that they are sending is that these people belong here and you don’t.”
Like Representative Sykes, Representative Sánchez took action. First, she called out one of the security guards for reinforcing norms of who should or does hold congressional office, telling them, “You know, White men are not the only members of Congress. There are women who are members. There are Hispanic and Black members too.” Then she complained directly to the Sergeant at Arms, who warned members of his team not to question her credentials again. When we interviewed Representative Sánchez, she was unconvinced that new women members were not subject to the same skepticism, but her efforts pushed some inside the institution to revise their own expectations of political leadership.
Representative Sykes has gone further in her response to heightened scrutiny, launching #WeBelongHere last month as a forum in which Black women in elected office, government, policy, public service can share their stories of bias and extra scrutiny on the job. As its name reflects, the initiative is itself an assertion of Black women’s belonging within institutions from which they have long been excluded.
Like @EmiliaSykesOH I've been questioned when someone *thinks* I don't look like a lawmaker. But I was elected just like anyone else. Black women have the capacity and credentials to do anything. #WeBelongHere in Congress, and everywhere else. pic.twitter.com/1yyb3IMwqa— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 19, 2018
Like Chisholm, Sánchez, and Sykes, women nationwide are standing up for themselves against forces that would ignore or erase their presence in political institutions. But the work cannot fall only on those who are challenging the status quo to prove that they belong. It’s on all of us to not only accept, but also celebrate and promote the diversity of political leadership. It’s on all of us to question our own biases and rethink images and conceptions ingrained in our psyche about who is meant to lead. And, finally, it’s on all of us to recognize that the scrutiny and surveillance of women and people of color are rooted in racist and sexist norms that founded American political institutions without them in mind.
Today, while White men are still overrepresented at every level of political office, 1,876 women, 456 women of color, and 277 Black women serve in state legislatures nationwide; 107 women are voting members of Congress, including 38 women of color; 72 women hold statewide elected executive office, including 6 women governors and 8 women of color; and nearly 300 women are mayors in cities with populations over 30,000. There is much progress left to make in achieving a more representative democracy for women and communities of color, but these data make clear that women across racial and ethnic groups belong in positions of political power. It’s up to everyone else to get on board.
Media reports frequently confuse the women's vote and the gender gap, actually reporting on the women’s vote but calling it the gender gap. To clarify: the gender gap in voting is the difference between the proportions of women and men who support a given candidate, generally the leading or winning candidate. It is the gap between the genders, not within a gender. It is also not the aggregate of differences within both genders (e.g. women +10 Democrat and men +10 Republican ≠ 20 point gender gap). Here is how to calculate the gender gap in vote choice or preference:
[% Women for Leading or Winning Candidate] – [% Men for Leading or Winning Candidate] = Gender Gap
The women's vote describes the division in women’s support for major party candidates in any given race. It is the percentage-point advantage that one candidate has over the other among women voters – that is, the difference in women’s support for the Democratic and Republican candidates.
[% Women for Leading Party’s Candidate] – [% Women for Trailing Party’s Candidate] = Women's Vote
This distinction is important because even when women and men favor the same candidate, they usually do so by different margins, resulting in a gender gap. For example, we frequently see a gender gaps even in races where the women’s vote breaks for the Republican - i.e., where more women voters prefer the Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate.
Why Women’s Votes Matter
- Women vote in higher numbers than men and have done so in every election since 1964. In 2016, 9.9 million more women than men voted. Women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980. In 2016, 63.3% of eligible female adults went to the polls, compared to 59.3% of eligible male adults. Even in midterm elections, when voter turnout is lower among men and women, women vote in higher numbers and at higher rates than men.
- More women than men register to vote. Some 83.8 million women were registered to vote in 2016, compared to 73.8 million men.
- There has been a gender gap in every presidential election since 1980. In the 2016 election, men were 11 percentage points more likely than women to vote for Donald Trump (52% of men vs. 41% of women), according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research.
- There also has been a gender gap in congressional voting in every recent midterm election. In 2014, there was a 10-point gender gap, with 58% of men compared to 48% of women voting for the Republican candidate in their district. In 2010 there was a 6-point gender gap, with 57% of men compared to 51% of women voting for the Republican candidate in their district. In 2006, there was a 4-point gender gap, with 56% of women and 52% of men voting for the Democratic candidate in their district.