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.
All statewide executive and state legislative primary elections are now complete, giving us the opportunity to take stock of women's candidacies and put their successes into context. Note that our findings on primary success and nominations do not include contests that remain too close to call or Lousiana's special election for Secretary of State, which will be held as a jungle primary on November 6th.
Women gubernatorial candidates have run for and won nominations in record numbers this year.
But women are still underrepresented as a proportion of all gubernatorial nominees, with significant disparities by party.
While women shattered the record for gubernatorial nominees this year, there is no guarantee that they will break the record for women governors serving simultaneously – which is 9 - in 2019.
Regardless of numbers of winners, the diversity among women gubernatorial candidates is notable this year.
In addition to 3 (3D) LGBTQ nominees (Kate Brown-OR, Lupe Valdez-TX, and Christine Hallquist-VT), there is more racial and ethnic diversity in this year’s pool of women gubernatorial candidates than ever before. 5 of 16 women nominees are women of color, including 4 Democratic nominees who would be the first Democratic women of color ever elected governor in the U.S.
- Stacey Abrams (D-GA) would also be the first Black woman governor in the U.S. With her counterparts this year. She is also the first Black woman nominee for governor in the country.
- Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) and Lupe Valdez (D-TX) would be first Democratic Latinas elected governor in the U.S.
- Paulette Jordan (D-ID) is the first Native American woman nominee for governor nationwide. She would also be the first Native American woman governor, and just the second Native American woman elected to a statewide executive office in the U.S.
- Andria Tupola (R) is the only Republican woman of color nominee and the only Asian/Pacific Islander woman on a general election gubernatorial ballot in 2018.
Of the 16 states with women gubernatorial nominees in 2018, 4 have never had a woman governor: Idaho, Georgia, Maine, and South Dakota.
In Iowa, where incumbent Kim Reynolds (R) – who was appointed last year – is on the ballot, no woman has ever been elected governor.
All Statewide Elected Executive Offices
Overall, women candidates have won nominations for statewide elected executive offices in record numbers this year, though record-breaking nominations are concentrated in select offices (governor, auditor, and insurance commissioner).
More detail by specific office is available here.
But women are still underrepresented as a proportion of all statewide executive nominees, with significant disparities by party.
Women of color, who currently hold just 8 (2.6%) of statewide elected executive offices, are 10% of all nominees and 30% of women nominees for statewide elected executive office this year.
Other milestones to monitor for women candidates for statewide elected executive offices this year include:
- If elected, Democratic nominee for attorney general Tish James would be the first woman of color elected to statewide office in New York.
In Illinois and Minnesota, women of color were selected by both major-party candidates for governor as nominees for lieutenant governor. The last time that two women of color competed against each other for lieutenant governor was in 2002 in Ohio.
- In Illinois, incumbent Republican Evelyn Sanguinetti, who is Latina, and Democrat Juliana Stratton, who is Black, are nominees for lieutenant governor.
- In Minnesota’s gubernatorial race, both male nominees have selected Native American women as running mates: Peggy Flanagan (DFL) and Donna Bergstrom (R). Either woman would be the first woman of color elected statewide in Minnesota and the first Native American woman lieutenant governor elected nationwide.
- Debra Call, Alaska's Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, would – if elected – be the first woman of color elected to statewide office in Alaska and just the second Native American woman elected to statewide executive office in the U.S.
- If elected in Arizona, January Contreras - the Democratic challenger for attorney general - would become the first Latina and Kimberly Yee - the Republican nominee for state treasurer - would become the first Republican woman of color elected statewide.
State Legislative Offices
Women state legislative candidates have won nominations in record numbers this year.
In 34 of 46 states holding state legislative elections this year, a record number of women have been nominated. However, these milestones vary by party.
- 35 states have hit a new high for Democratic women nominees for the state legislature.
- 10 states have hit a new high for Republican women nominees for the state legislature.
7 in 10 women state legislative nominees in 2018 are Democrats.
- 71% of women nominees for state senates are Democrats.
- 70% of women nominees for state houses are Democrats.
Larger proportions of Democratic women than Republican women nominees across state legislative chambers are running as challengers to incumbents in November.
Our full election information, as well as candidate lists and historical information, is available through our Election Watch page.
All congressional primary elections other than Louisiana (which holds a jungle primary on November 6th) are now complete, giving us the opportunity to take stock of women's candidacies and put their successes into context. Note that our findings on primary success and nominations do not include Lousiana's congressional candidates. *UPDATED on September 17, 2018 to include results from MA-03 recount
Women congressional candidates have run for and won nominations in record numbers this year.
But women are still underrepresented as a proportion of all congressional candidates and nominees, with significant disparities by party.
Much attention has been paid to both the surge and success of Democratic women candidates in 2018. In U.S. House primary contests, Democratic women candidates had the highest win rates of any group, both among all candidates and among non-incumbents only.
Importantly, however, Democratic women nominees for the House are more likely than their male counterparts to be running as challengers in November.
- 50% of women nominees, and 36% of men nominees, are running as challengers in November.
- Among Democrats, 52% of women nominees and 39% of men nominees will challenge incumbents in November.
Women are favored to gain representation in the U.S. House based on current race forecasts, but are very likely to remain underrepresented among all officeholders next year.
- If women won all House contests in which they are currently favored as well as those races deemed toss-ups, they would hold about 24% of House seats in 2019. Currently, women are 19.3% of House members.
Women of color are more than one-third of women House candidates and nominees, but just one woman of color will be a Senate nominee this November.
Many women of color congressional candidates are poised to make history this year.
- Deb Haaland (D) of New Mexico is likely to become the first Native American woman in the U.S. Congress. Sharice Davids (D), in a more challenging race in Kansas' 3rd congressional district, could join her.
- Michigan's Rashida Tlaib (D) and Minnesota's Ilhan Omar (D) are set to become the first Muslim-American women in Congress. Omar, who is Somali-American, would also become the first woman of color to represent her state in Congress.
- Two more Black women, Jahana Hayes (D-CT) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), are also likely to be the first women of color in their states' congressional delegations.
- In Texas, two of four Latina nominees - Veronica Escobar (D) and Sylvia Garcia (D) - are favored to win in November; they will be the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.
Other milestones to watch for include:
- Arizona will get its first woman senator this year, as both major-party nominees are women. The contest between Martha McSally (R) and Kyrsten Sinema (D) is just one of 33 women v. women general election match-ups for Congress in 2018, six in the Senate and 26 in the House. Of those 33 races, eight will be for open seats. This marks a record for the number of women v. women races in a given year. The previous record was 19, set in 2002.1
- Marsha Blackburn is the first woman to be nominated by the Republican party of Tennessee in a Senate race, and, if she wins in November, she will become the state's first woman senator.
- If elected in November, current Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) will become the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi.
And stay tuned to these states:
- Pennsylvania, the largest state in the country that does not currently have a woman in its congressional delegation, will shed that dubious distinction this year, as both major-party nominees for the state's 5th congressional district, Pearl Kim (R) and Mary Gay Scanlon (D), are women. If Kim wins in November, she will also become the first woman of color to represent the state in Congress.
- In South Carolina, another one of 11 states with no women currently in Congress, Katie Arrington (R) - who defeated incumbent Mark Sanford in the primary - is currently favored to win in the 1st congressional district.
- South Dakota will lose its woman in Congress this year. Current Representative Kristi Noem (R) is the state's Republican nominee for governor.
Our full election information, as well as candidate lists and historical information, is available through our Election Watch page.
1 In CA-45, two women will be on the ballot this fall, but Aja Brown (D) has withdrawn from the contest. That race is counted among the 33 women v. women contests, though Brown is not actively campaigning.
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.
The 2018 election has been widely touted as the next “Year of the Woman.” The number of women seeking congressional office is indeed at an all-time high, with 468 women running for the U.S. House and 51 running for the U.S. Senate. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, these figures well surpass the previous records of 40 female Senate candidates who ran in 2016 and 298 female House candidates who ran in 2012.
Yet as Kelly Dittmar wrote last week, women are still less than one quarter—24%—of all major party House candidates running in 2018, up from 18% in 2016. And Democratic women are the real drivers of the surge in female candidates in 2018: women are 33% of all Democratic candidates but only 14% of all Republican candidates. Many parallels have been drawn to previous election cycles, but how does the number of women candidates in 2018 look over a longer time horizon?
I collected data on U.S. House candidates from 1980 to 2014 to examine historical and partisan changes in the number of female candidates on the ballot over the last three decades. The tables below include all major party primary candidates from 1980 to 2014, with breakouts for Democrats and Republicans.
It is clear that the number of women candidates has increased steadily over time. The percentage of female primary candidates is four times higher in 2018 than it was in 1980. What is more, the six point increase in the percentage of women candidates compared to the previous year—18% in 2016 to 24% in 2018—is larger than that in any other year during this period. The second largest increases in the percentage of female candidates were 3 points in 1992 and 2012.
As Dittmar noted, much of the current surge in women candidates has been fueled by Democratic women. But it hasn’t always been this way. Throughout the 1980s, women made up relatively equal proportions of Democratic and Republican primary candidates, hovering around 10% in both parties.
The first significant change was in 1992, popularly dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” when the number of Democratic women primary candidates doubled from the previous election and the percentage of women candidates increased by four points. Yet Democratic gains did not end there. The proportion of female Democratic candidates has increased slowly but steadily since then. These small, incremental gains are what differentiate women in the Democratic Party from women in the Republican Party.
To be sure, the proportion of women in Republican primaries has increased—in fact, more than doubled—during this period, from 6% in 1980 to 14% in 2018. However, the trend has mostly been one of stagnation. In my research, I have shown how the Republican women in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s were virtually all ideological moderates who are no longer in office today. The complete replacement of moderates had important implications for the representation of Republican women in particular.
Unlike the Democratic Party, which both retained and added new women to their caucus, the Republican women in Congress today are almost an entirely new crop of members. Of the 23 Republican women in the U.S. House, only 2 were elected before 2000, and one of them—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL)—is retiring this year.
A longer time horizon helps us to put the 2018 figures in perspective and consider the effects for women’s representation and female political engagement more generally. Scholars have been cautious about whether this surge in female candidates will result in the election of more women to office, primarily because many of them are running against incumbents or in districts that favor the other party. Yet all agree that this year is a historic one for women candidates, and the data shown here provide a new window into how the changes we are seeing this year are indeed different from those in previous election cycles.
Danielle Thomsen is an Assistant Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is the author of Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates.