In this post, we take a first look at women running for state legislative seats in 2016. The detail and predictability of our data is limited at this level due to the high number of candidates and races, but our outlook shows that we enter Election Day with a record-level number of female state legislative nominees, with enough poised to win that we expect an increase in women’s state legislative representation in 2017.
State Legislative Nominees
In 2016, 2602 women are state legislative nominees in the 44 states holding state legislative elections, marking a new record. This number only includes major party nominees (1702D, 891R), non-partisan nominees in Nebraska (5), and third-party nominees who are incumbents (4 independents). This year, 482 (297D, 180R, 5NP) women are nominees for state senate seats and 2120 (1405D, 711R, 4I) are nominees for state house seats.
Three hundred and two (192D, 105R, 4NP, 1I) additional women are holdovers that are guaranteed seats in 2017. The highest number of women nominees for state legislative seats since CAWP began tracking these numbers was 2537, set in 2010 – a year in which 46 states held legislative elections. Thus, even in a year where fewer state legislative seats are being contested, more women will be on the ballot.
Total Women Nominees and Winners for State Legislatures, 1976-2016
Of the 2602 women nominees running this year, 1208, or 46.4%, are incumbents. Seven hundred and fifty-seven women, or 29.1%, are running as challengers and 637 women, or 24.5%, are running in open seat contests. Among female state house nominees, 46.2% are running as incumbents, 30% are running as challengers, and 24.8% are running in open seat contests. Among female state senate nominees, 47.5% are incumbents, 29.4% are running as challengers, and 23% are running in open seat contests.
The number of Democratic women state legislative nominees in 2016 (1702) is the greatest we’ve recorded, up from the previous high of 1625 in election 2014. The number of Republican women nominated this year (891) is up only one from the number on the ballot in 2014 (890). This does not mark a record high for Republican women state legislative nominees since we began tracking these numbers in 1992.
While the overall trend between and across parties is one of relative stasis, as is evident in the flat lines in the graphs above and below, the increase in Democratic women nominees this year may foreshadow a more significant increase in women’s state legislative representation in 2017.
Total Major Party Women Nominees for State Legislatures, 1992-2016
Women in State Legislatures 2017
Today, 1805 (1081D, 705R, 11NP, 7I) women serve in state legislatures, including 442 (263D, 167R, 11NP, 1I) female state senators and 1363 (819D, 538R, 6I) female members of state houses. They represent 24.4% of all 7383 state legislators nationwide. The percentage of women state legislators has remained nearly flat over the past two decades, as is evident in the line graph below. As the chart above shows, women’s state legislative representation increases as the number of women nominees rises. With a rising number of women nominees this year, we should see an increase in women’s state legislative representation.
Percent of Women State Legislators, 1971-2014
Currently, 398 (367D, 30R, 1NP) women state legislators, or 21.9% of all women legislators, are women of color. Because we are unable to track the race of state legislative candidates prior to Election Day, we do not know the racial identification and breakdown of women nominees this year.
CAWP will be tracking the numbers of women winning state legislative seats on Election Day to determine how women fare nationally, by chamber, by state, and by party. We will monitor trends in women’s representation and watch for shifts in the balance of partisan power in state legislative chambers, especially where women hold top leadership positions.
 No state legislative elections will be held this year in AL, LA, MD, MS, NJ, and VA.
 Because AL and MD hold state legislative elections every four years and LA, MS, NJ, and VA hold state legislative elections in odd-numbered, only 44 states are holding state legislative elections this year. Minnesota’s state senate holds elections in all years ending in 0, 2, and 6.
What will the U.S. House of Representatives look like in 2017? Combining CAWP data with race ratings from the Cook Political Report reveals that women may well reach a new high in numerical representation in the 115th House, but that outcome relies upon favorable breaks in the most competitive races. Moreover, the most positive outcomes in 2016 are likely to come for Democratic women candidates, who are best situated to take new seats, while Republican women are likely to see a net loss in their ranks.
Candidates and Nominees
Two hundred and seventy two (176D, 96R) women filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. The record for women House candidates was set in 2012, with 298 women (190D, 108R) filing. This year, 167 women (120D, 47R) have won their primaries, just barely setting a new record for women House nominees. The previous record was set in 2012, with 166 women (118D, 48R) making it through their party primaries.
Total Women Candidates Filed for U.S. House, 1992-2016
Total Women Nominees and Winners for U.S. House, 1976-2016
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2016, 19 (14D, 5R) women are nominees for open U.S. House seats, compared to the record high of 39 (26D, 13R) women running for open seats in 2012. As the charts below show, women have fallen short of making history as open seat nominees in either major party this year. Democrats have broken one record this year, exceeding the previous high of 118 total nominees for the U.S. House (set in 2012) by two.
Total Women Nominees for Open U.S. House Seats, 1976-2016
Total Women Candidates Filed for U.S. House by Party, 1976-2016
Total Women Nominees for U.S. House by Party, 1976-2016
Women in the 115th Congress
It is likely that the total number of women serving in the U.S. House will rise in the 115th Congress from the 84 women members (62D, 22R) in the 114th Congress, but the size of that increase depends on how the most contentious races of this cycle break for women candidates. Importantly, there is a partisan disparity in the prospects for women’s congressional success this year.
While we know that eleven current women members (8D, 3R) are leaving because of retirements, primary losses, and bids for other offices, four women candidates (3D, 1R) are very likely to become new members of the 115th Congress, based on the most recent ratings from the Cook Political Report. Democratic women candidates are much better represented among the remaining prospects for the 115th freshman class. Another two Democratic women newcomers (2D) are rated as likely or leaning to win House seats this year. Finally, 10 possible new women members (9D, 1R) are competing in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report as of this week, with only one Republican among them. Two of these women are competing against each other in the competitive race for the open seat in New York’s 22nd district. There are currently no women incumbents in races deemed as toss-ups or possible losses, though Republicans Mia Love (R-UT) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA) are in the most vulnerable (labeled “lean Republican” by Cook) races this year. Based on these numbers, the number of Republican women in the U.S. House will almost certainly decline from the 114th to the 115th Congress; including a win in a toss-up race for Republican candidate Claudia Tenney (NY-22), Republican women are favored to win 21 seats this year, down from the 22 currently serving in the U.S. House.
Four (4D) of the five (4D, 1R) non-incumbent women most favored to win House seats (in races deemed safe or likely wins for their party by Cook Political Report) are women of color. In fact, of the five open-seat races with women candidates deemed as solid or likely for their party’s success, four are women of color. They include two Black women (Val Demings [FL-10] and Lisa Blunt Rochester [DE-At-large]) and two Asian American women (former Representative Colleen Hanabusa [HI-1] and Pramila Jayapal [WA-7]). Jayapal who would become the first Indian American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. The only other woman candidate equally favored to become a freshman member of the 115th Congress is Republican Liz Cheney, running for Wyoming’s at-large seat.
In 2014, 12 new women (7D, 5R) were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. If more than half of the toss-up races listed break in women candidates’ favor, we may meet or exceed that number this year. However, we are highly unlikely to match the 19 new women that were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 or approach the size of the female freshman class we saw after the 1992 election, known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Women Members of the Freshman Class, U.S. House of Representatives, 1976-2014
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. House seats on Election Day and closely monitoring the most competitive races with women running (see table above), we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- DE-At-large: Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester, if elected, will be the first woman ever elected to Congress from Delaware. Delaware is one of just three states (along with MS and VT) that have never sent a woman to Congress. Rochester would also be the first person of color to represent Delaware in Washington, DC.
- IA-1: Democrat Monica Vernon, if elected, will be first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa. She is challenging incumbent Rod Blum (R) in a contest currently rated as a toss-up. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) became the first woman ever elected to Congress from Iowa in 2014. Kim Weaver (D) is also competing for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District seat, a seat deemed solidly Republican.
- NH-1 and HI-1: Democrats Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1) and Colleen Hanabusa (HI-1) are favored to win congressional seats they formerly held. Shea-Porter has served three terms in the U.S. House, losing re-election in 2014. That year, Hanabusa ran for the U.S. Senate and lost after serving two terms in the U.S. House.
- NY-22: Republican Claudia Tenney and Democrat Kim Myers are in a tight race to win this open seat. This is the only woman-versus-woman House race rated as competitive this year. Fourteen other House races have two female nominees this year, and all four of Hawaii’s nominees for the state’s two House seats are women.
- WA-7: Democrat Pramila Jayapal, if elected, will be the first South Asian American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. She would also be the first woman of color to ever serve in Washington’s congressional delegation.
- WY-At-large: Republican Liz Cheney, if elected, will be the first woman elected to hold the same U.S. House seat that her father once held (1979-1989). Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) succeeded her father Frank in the U.S. Senate. Other women members – including Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have had fathers who have served in Congress before them, but not in the same seats.
Finally, while two states with no women currently serving in the U.S. House (Delaware and Iowa) have the potential to add women members to their 115th House delegations, Maryland, which currently has one woman House member and one woman Senator, is very likely to have no women in its congressional delegation come January 2017. Sixteen other states are unlikely to add women to their all-male U.S. House delegations in 2017: AK, AR, GA, ID, KY, LA, MS, MT, NE, ND, OK, PA, RI, SC, VT, and WV. Women are nominees in 8 of these 16 states, but they are all competing in races rated as solid or likely wins for the party of their opponent.
While this year saw a record number of women filing for Senate races, November’s ballots won’t offer a record number of women nominees. Still, depending on how the most competitive races of the cycle break on November 8th, we may see a net increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate in January 2017.
Candidates and Nominees
Forty (28D, 12R) women filed to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. The previous record number of women filing for the Senate was 36, set in 2010 (19D, 17R) and reached again in 2012 (20D, 16R). This year, 15 (11D, 4R) women have won their primaries, and Caroline Fayard (D) will be on the November 8th ballot in Louisiana’s same-day primary for the state’s open Senate seat. The record for women Senate nominees was set in 2012, with 18 women (12D, 6R) making it through their party primaries. There are two woman–versus-woman Senate races this year: in California (Kamala Harris [D] v. Loretta Sanchez [D]) and New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte [R] v. Maggie Hassan [D]).
This year, more than twice as many Democratic as Republican women filed to run for the U.S. Senate. This is the largest partisan gap in female candidate filings in the past 24 years. Democrat women nominees also outnumber Republican women nominees this year with the largest partisan gap in female candidate nominations in over a decade.
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2016, 4 (3D, 1R) women are nominees for open U.S. Senate seats, compared to the 7 (4D, 3R) women who ran for open seats in 2014 (1). Three incumbents are seeking re-election and eight women are running as challengers.
Women in the 115th Congress
Twenty (14D, 6R) women currently serve in the U.S. Senate. Two incumbent women senators stepping down this year, including the “Dean” of the U.S. Senate women, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). A new woman senator is guaranteed to be elected in California’s Senate race to replace Boxer, since the state’s top-two primary resulted in the nomination of two Democratic women – Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez. The winner of that race will become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California and only the third woman of color ever to serve in the Senate from any state (2). A Sanchez victory would give the Senate its first Latina.
Fifteen (11D, 4R) incumbent women senators are holdovers who will remain in office through the 115th Congress. Three (1D, 2R) incumbent women are up for re-election. Two of those women, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are likely to keep their seats. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is engaged in a competitive bid for re-election against current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, but no matter the outcome, a woman will hold the NH seat. Their race is rated as a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.
Based on the most recent ratings, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is favored slightly to win in her challenge against incumbent Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (R). Three more women candidates for the U.S. Senate, all Democrats, are in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, including challengers Deborah Ross (NC) and Katie McGinty (PA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), who is running for the open seat created by Senator Harry Reid’s (D) retirement. With major party nominees in four of the seven U.S. Senate races currently deemed toss-ups, women candidates will play a key role in determining the partisan balance of power in the U.S. Senate in 2017.
The remaining six women nominees for U.S. Senate seats face strong headwinds going into November. According to the Cook Political Report ratings, the Arizona race in which Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) bids to oust Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is leaning toward the incumbent. Patty Judge (D-IA) is rated likely to lose her challenge to incumbent Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The contests of three more women nominees – Kathy Szeliga (R-MD), Wendy Long (R-NY), and Misty Snow (D-UT) – are rated solidly in their opponents’ favor. Finally, while Caroline Fayard (D-LA) is still in the running for Louisiana’s Democratic Senate nomination (to be held on November 8th), that seat is considered solidly Republican.
In 2012, a record 5 (4D, 1R) new women were elected to the U.S. Senate. Based on current ratings, up to six new women, all Democrats, could be elected to the U.S. Senate this year (Duckworth-IL, Harris/Sanchez-CA, Hassan-NH, Masto-NV, McGinty-PA, and Ross-NC.) There are no likely Republican gains for women in the Senate, and one Republican woman – Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is at risk of losing her seat. Accounting for retirements and current ratings, the number of women in the U.S. Senate in 2017 is likely to range between 19 and 23, not departing dramatically from the current 20.
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. Senate seats on Election Day and closely monitoring the most competitive races with women running (see table above), we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- California: Democrat Kamala Harris, if elected, will be the first multiracial woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California. Harris identifies as Indian-American and African-American. If elected, she would also become the first Indian-American Senator in the United States (3). Under California’s top-two primary system, Harris is running against another Democrat: Loretta Sanchez. Sanchez, who currently represents California’s 46th congressional district, would also become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California if elected in November. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Illinois: Democrat Tammy Duckworth, if elected, will be the second woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. She would also be the first woman military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat; incumbent Joni Ernst (R-IA) was the first female military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Maryland: If Republican Kathy Szeliga is unsuccessful in her bid to fill the state’s open Senate seat, as current ratings predict, Maryland is likely to have its first all-male congressional delegation since 1973. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D), who is retiring this year, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1987 (and before that served in the House starting in 1977). Representative Donna Edwards (D), the other woman in Maryland’s 114th Congress delegation, was unsuccessful in her bid for the nomination to replace Mikulski in the Senate.
- Nevada: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Nevada. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate (perhaps earning this honor alongside California candidate Loretta Sanchez).
- New Hampshire: As in California, New Hampshire has two women running for the Senate. The incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, is one of six Republican women senators in the 114th Congress. She is the first Republican woman to represent New Hampshire in the U.S. Congress. Her challenger, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is the current Governor of New Hampshire. If elected, she would join Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who also served as Governor of New Hampshire, in representing the Granite State in the U.S. Senate.
- Pennsylvania: Democrat Katie McGinty, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. To date, Pennsylvania has sent seven women to the U.S. House, but currently has no women in its congressional delegation. According to current race ratings, McGinty has the greatest chance of all of Pennsylvania’s women congressional nominees of adding gender diversity to her state’s delegation in Washington, D.C.
Finally, the three states that currently have women-only delegations in the U.S. Senate – California, New Hampshire, and Washington – are likely to maintain that distinction. An all-woman delegation is guaranteed in California and New Hampshire, where women are all major party nominees; in Washington, incumbent Patty Murray (D) is highly likely to be re-elected.
The 2016 presidential election has brought questions of gender, sexism, and the role of women in politics to the forefront of national conversation. Are Americans ready to see a woman in the role of President, an office that has long been an exclusively male domain? How do our expectations about presidential masculinity—strength, “toughness,” military might—influence the way we evaluate the first female major party nominee? In what ways are voters’ impressions of Hillary Clinton, who has been a major presence in American politics for decades, influenced by the many examples of gendered (and often blatantly sexist) media coverage and comments from her opponent’s campaign?
It is difficult to untangle the effects of gender from the unique circumstances surrounding Clinton herself—her level of experience, name recognition, and many years in the public spotlight ensured that many voters knew who she was well before she announced her candidacy for president, and most voters already had strong opinions about her, as well. However, in order to get a better sense of some of the ways gender has mattered in this race, it may be useful to consider some recent work from political science on how gender stereotypes affect voting behavior, including a new article I wrote () that examines how participants in an experiment evaluated male and female candidates whose competence to serve in office was called into question. In general, I find that women who run for office are more vulnerable to information that casts doubt on their competence and experience than are men. Participants in two experiments liked “incompetent” women less than “incompetent” men and were less likely to vote for them, as well.
Scholars of women and politics have conducted many studies over the past several decades trying to determine whether and how gender-based stereotypes influence women who run for, and serve in, political office. Despite the large amount of attention devoted to this question, though, the evidence is somewhat inconclusive. Many studies have found differences by gender in the ways that candidates are evaluated—women are perceived as more liberal, compassionate, trustworthy, warm and emotional, but less competent, “tough,” and strong (e.g. ; Kahn 1996). However, some of the most recent work in this area seems to indicate that gender-based stereotypes are not automatically applied to women candidates and that other considerations, like political party affiliation, are much more important to voters than a candidate’s gender (Brooks 2013; Dolan 2014; Hayes 2011).
Yet a third group of studies have found evidence for a sort of “middle ground” for the effects of gender-based stereotypes, suggesting that they may matter for some women candidates in certain electoral contexts, but not in others. The extent to which gender stereotypes matter seems to depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the political advertisements used (), the policy issues emphasized (Lawless 2004; Holman et al 2011), and the amount or type of other information available during a campaign (Matson and Fine 2006; Ditonto, Hamilton and Redlawsk 2014).
The findings from my most recent study fall into this third category. The point of the study was to determine whether earlier findings that women candidates are often seen as less competent (e.g. Huddy and Terkildsen 1993; Schneider and Bos 2014) would hold if information related directly to a candidate’s competence was also available to voters—things like evaluations of a debate performance, comments from a staffer, or a newspaper editorial. I wanted to know how this sort of substantive, politically-relevant information would change voters’ perceptions of candidates, and whether it would matter differently for women candidates than for men. A previous study some colleagues and I conducted (Ditonto, Hamilton and Redlawsk 2014) found that participants in an experiment that simulated a political campaign sought out more information about a candidate’s competence and experience when that candidate was female. In that experiment, all of the information available about the candidates portrayed them positively—as very competent. However, if voters are seeking out more competence-related information for women candidates than for men, what happens when the information they encounter makes them seem less than totally competent?
In order to find out, I conducted a computer-based experiment that mimicked a presidential campaign between two fictitious (but realistic) candidates—one Democrat and one Republican. Each participant experienced a “campaign” in which various pieces of information about the candidates scrolled down their computer screen. They could click on whichever items they wanted in order to learn more about a particular topic, and their choices included things like the candidates’ policy positions, ideology, family, educational background, etc.—the same kinds of things that are usually available during a real political campaign.
The experiment varied two important factors within the campaign, however. First, half of the people saw two male candidates in the race (one in each party) while the other half saw a woman running in their own political party and a man running for the other party. Second, there was also a subset of information that related specifically to how competent the candidates seemed (how they did in a debate, how the candidate’s opponent talks about them, comments from a newspaper editorial, a description of the candidate’s prior political experience, how the candidate did while holding previous office, and a description of the candidate by a former staff member). Again, I split the sample of participants into two groups—for half of them, this information portrayed their party’s candidate as very competent. The other half saw information that made their party’s candidate seem less competent than one might hope for.
To sum up, participants saw a campaign for president in which they could either see two men running for office, or a woman running in their party and a man in the other party, and in which some of the information available to them either made their party’s candidate seem competent or incompetent. After going through the campaign, they were asked to vote for the candidate of their choice and also to tell me how much they liked their candidate on a 0-100 point “feeling thermometer.”
The results suggest that a candidate’s gender plays a big role in how much we care about his or her perceived competence. Women and men who were portrayed as competent did about equally well in both the outcome of the election and participants’ evaluations—candidate gender didn’t matter to them as long as the candidate seemed competent and qualified. When they were presented with a candidate who seemed less than competent, though, women candidates did far worse than men did. In fact, subjects who saw incompetent women in their party often rated the candidate in the other party as favorably or more favorably than they rated her, and were actually more likely to vote for the other candidate! This was a pretty unexpected finding, since party affiliation is almost always the strongest predictor of someone’s vote choice.
Importantly, incompetent male candidates didn’t suffer the same fate. Essentially, competent and incompetent men fared equally well—their chance of receiving a subject’s vote and the extent to which a subject liked them remained the same, statistically speaking, whether they were portrayed as competent or incompetent. In other words, participants didn’t seem to care whether their candidate was competent or not, as long that candidate was a man.
In a sense, these results are good news for women candidates. If they come across as competent and qualified, they can do just as well as men. This means that they are not automatically disadvantaged by stereotypes that women candidates are less competent than men. On the other hand, women seem to be disadvantaged by negative portrayals of their competence in ways that men simply are not. Perhaps we should be more surprised that subjects liked incompetent male candidates as much as they did!
The current presidential election may be a pretty good real-world example of this phenomenon at work. Hillary Clinton is widely considered to be one of the most well-qualified candidates ever to run for president, and even her detractors acknowledge that she has far more political experience than Donald Trump, at least in the traditional sense. Yet, there has been a great deal of talk about the different standards that the two are often held to by the media, and even by voters of their own parties. Trump’s seeming ability to get away with saying and/or doing just about anything without losing support is a marked contrast to Clinton, who is continually attacked for things like her “lack of judgment,” not looking “presidential enough,” and not being “authentic.” To be sure, there are many factors at play that contribute to these dynamics, but my findings suggest that that a double-standard when it comes to male and female candidates’ competence may certainly be part of the story.
Scholars have long lamented the lack of women candidates for public office. Attempts to recruit women candidates have been widespread, targeting older women with empty nests, younger women without children (or those not interested in having them), lawyers and businesswomen whose experience mirrors that of typical male candidates. But another pool is waiting to be tapped: losers, women who have previously run for office but did not win. Challenges to re-recruiting these women to run are deep-rooted in societal expectations of women. Yet, the 2016 presidential race offers two examples, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, who have not let political setbacks stop them from pursuing their goals. Their decisions to persist despite earlier failed campaigns should inspire other women who have run and lost to jump back in the fray.
The common refrain that “when women run, they win” refers to evidence that women and men have similar win rates in general elections (Newman 1994; Sanbonmatsu 2006). But what happens if they lose? Women are less likely than men to run for election after suffering a defeat (Dolan et al 2015). Convincing women (who are less often self-starters) to throw their hats into the ring in the first place takes time; sometimes it requires additional resources from political parties and women’s organizations. (See CAWP resource Poised to Run.) If the woman candidate loses her first election and sours on the prospect, that investment may never pay off. For women who suffer from self-doubts about their qualifications, a loss may provide an excuse not to run again. (Fox and Lawless 2010).
Yet the 2016 presidential campaign showcased two women candidates who dusted themselves off and got back in the game. Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in the 2008 Democratic primary was a bruising political defeat. Conceding the nomination to relative newcomer Senator Barack Obama, then-Senator Clinton said, “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina lost a highly visible Senate race to incumbent Barbara Boxer in 2010. The return of both Clinton and Fiorina to the presidential race in 2016 to take yet another crack at high office is a welcome model for women recovering from election defeats at lower levels all across the country.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Fiorina’s senate campaign manager, Marty Wilson, said, “Carly was bummed after the loss, but I encouraged her to stay involved and run again. I told Carly she should run for president in 2012 and she said I was ‘Nuts.’” Fortunately, Fiorina changed her mind (with encouragement from a political insider). Her compelling performance in the August primary debates established her as a significant presence in the crowded Republican field.
Despite her loss in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was identified early as the obvious choice for her party’s nomination in 2016, based in part on experience she gained as Secretary of State – a position she won as a consequence of both her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her strong showing in ’08.
One never knows what may follow even a losing campaign. Many women officeholders cite their campaigns for lower office as having signaled to powerbrokers their willingness and ability to serve in appointed positions unanticipated before their races. In Hillary Clinton’s case, seizing the opportunity to serve as Secretary of State under her 2008 opponent, Barack Obama, positioned her for her 2016 run, with the added credential leading many to call her the most qualified presidential candidate of the modern era.
There are plenty of reasons not to dust oneself off and try again. Campaigns are costly, both financially and emotionally, as well as in time that may be in short supply for women who are still responsible for the bulk of household maintenance and often breadwinning for their families. But there may be more at play as well.
Self-doubt has been documented among women in likely candidate pools, and it begins early. In analyzing college-age women and their pursuit of leadership opportunities on campus, Keohane et al 2003 found that at Duke University many women undergraduates were under the pressure of “effortless perfection: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort”. It is possible that women candidates face similar social expectations (think supermom and having it all) and a hard-fought campaign loss is hardly evidence of effortless perfection.
So what will it take for women to overcome this? Angela Lee Ducksworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that success is largely dependent upon grit, described as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina”. Political campaigns certainly require stamina, and women’s individual tenacity should be supplemented by political parties who can provide volunteers, funds, and public statements of support to make it easier for women to take another chance. Like political campaigns, the adage exemplifying grit, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” may also be gendered. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that talented girls are less likely to persist following a failure because they perceive abilities to be innate rather than a consequence of effort and practice (Dweck and Leggett 1988). These beliefs may persist into adulthood, as Kay and Shipman (2014) find that women are more likely to blame themselves for failure and give credit to other factors when they succeed, while their male counterparts dismiss failure and claim credit.
Knowing that these gendered differences exist, it is important to highlight the number of men in public office who were not successful at first. They include President Bill Clinton in his 1974 Arkansas congressional race and President George W. Bush in his 1978 Texas congressional race. Even President Barack Obama lost a 2000 Illinois Democratic congressional primary before going on to win a Senate seat in 2004. Speaking to a broader audience, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, recently posted a CV of his failures, arguing that making his own failures visible to others would prevent them from wrongfully attributing their own failures to individual flaws rather than the external factors that could be at play.
In the context of a campaign, there could be any number of reasons why a candidate doesn’t receive the most votes irrespective of a candidate’s suitability. The knowledge gained from an initial loss is invaluable to a qualified candidate who may perceive her loss as an indictment of her abilities alone, when in reality she might just need a different campaign manager, a better communications strategy, or a race for a different type of office. Start-up companies across Silicon Valley have spoken out about the importance of failure and learning from our mistakes, indicating that value can come from experience – even negative experiences.
Publically admitting failure is certainly easier for those with privilege. Because male candidates are the default, men who lose and try again may be seen as the “comeback kid” or a “fighter”, while women may be tainted by the loss. It most certainly is easier for a man than a woman to overcome a loser association. That means women should be strategic in the selection of their races, but being strategic shouldn’t mean permanent retirement. It should mean learning from one’s mistakes and demonstrating the toughness that qualifies you for public service. With so few women running for and holding office, the pressure not to let down an entire gender is high. Furthermore, those with fewer resources don’t always have the option of another go-around. It is vital, then, that political parties and women’s organizations provide the institutional support that would make it easier for women to make a second attempt.
For their part, women who don’t win on that first try should take a lesson from Secretary Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina and go back at it, bringing even more as a consequence of the earlier defeat. In her commencement speech at the University of Rhode Island, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise”. Wisdom is surely a valuable commodity for public officials. Wisdom gained through failure is something previously unsuccessful women candidates can bring to the table, rather than something that should disqualify them from another campaign. We need more women in public office. Not perfect women – wise women. Sometimes that is going to mean stepping up one more time.
Let’s stipulate that neither party even approaches gender parity among its elected officials; except for the very rare local council, it’s nearly impossible to find places where women are represented at levels that match their numbers in the population.
But one of the key reasons that the number of women in elective office remains surprisingly low is the paucity of Republican women. The imbalance in the proportion of elected women from the two major parties is a fixture of American politics; Democrats have long had a substantially greater percentage of women among lawmakers at the federal and state levels than Republicans. What would the numbers of women officeholders look like if the proportion of women in the GOP matched Democrats’ level of women’s representation?
In the U.S. Senate, there are currently 20 women, 14 Democrats and 6 Republicans. The Democratic women constitute 30 percent of the Democratic delegation: 14 women/46 senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats). If the Republican side, with 54 senators, were 30 percent women, there would be 16 GOP women, giving us a total of 30 women in the Senate, an increase of 10 from today.
The same process yields a US House with 81 Republican women and a total of 143 women (rather than the current 84). Applying the formula to state legislatures, we would see 2,493 women instead of the current 1,808.
Some might note that these numbers don’t mean much on their own. But whatever distinctive qualities women bring to elective office, we’d have a lot more of them if Republican delegations looked more like their Democratic counterparts.
D women as a
% of all D’s
R women as a
% of all R’s
If R’s had the same %
of women as D’s
|The total # of women would be (as compared to the current #):|
|U.S. Senate||30% (14/46)||
|30% of 54=16||30 (20)|
|U.S. House||33% (62/188)||9% (22/246)||
33% of 246=81
|State Legislatures||34% (1084/3164)||17% (705/4117)||34% of 4117=1411||2495 (1808)|
The 2015 elections are in the books (mostly, with one state legislative race pending), and it’s hard to ignore stories about the 2016 presidential race crowding the airwaves. But what will CAWP’s Election Watch be tracking at the congressional and statewide levels? With two 2016 filing deadlines already past (in Alabama and Arkansas) it’s not too soon to consider what’s at stake – although it’s far too early to judge how close we may come to matching or beating past records.
In 34 states, U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot. To date, there are open seats in six states (CA, FL, IN, LA, MD and NV) but it’s possible that more will be created as incumbents contemplate the relative merits of an arduous contest versus a quiet retirement. Two incumbent women have already announced that they will step down: Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). That leaves three incumbent women who plan to seek re-election: Lisa Murkowski (R-AK); Kelly Ayotte (R-NH); and Patty Murray (D-WA). Ayotte’s race is already shaping up as a marquee woman-versus-woman contest, with Governor Maggie Hassan challenging her. Fifteen women in the Senate are holdovers whose seats are not up in 2016.
It could be a big year for women of color, with Democratic Senate candidates so far in six states (Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez in CA, Pam Keith in FL, Tammy Duckworth and Andrea Zopp in IL, Donna Edwards in MD, Catherine Cortez Masto in NV, and Joyce Dickerson in SC). Only one woman of color, Mazie Hirono, serves in the Senate now, and she is only the second woman of color there, following in the footsteps of Carol Moseley Braun.
On two occasions, a record 36 women have filed for Senate seats; in 2012, 20 Democrats and 16 Republicans ran, and in 2010, 19 Democrats and 17 Republicans did so. The largest number of women to win primaries was 18 (12D, 6R) in 2012. And the maximum number of women serving in the Senate concurrently is 20, a figure first achieved in 2013. The current number remains 20, although the party balance has changed (16D, 4R in 2013, 14D, 6R now).
US House of Representatives
Of course, all 435 House seats are up . So far, we know of 24 open seats, and we anticipate that 78 incumbent women (56D, 22R) will seek re-election, although that number will likely drop at least a bit. We know of seven incumbents (6D, 1R) not returning, including four running for the Senate, one running for county office, and two retiring.
The records to beat for the House? The maximum number to file was 298 (190D, 108R) in 2012. In that same year, 166 women (118D, 48R) won primaries. We reached the peak number of women in the House in 2013 (104) and that’s the number still serving (62D, 22R).
Only 11 states have gubernatorial elections in 2016. Six states (DE, MO, NH, ND, VT, WV) will have open-seat races, including one (NH) where the current woman governor, Maggie Hassan, is running for the U.S. Senate instead, as mentioned above. Women are currently candidates in four of the six open-seat races: Lacey Lafferty (R-DE); Catherine Hanaway (R-MO), Stefany Shaheen (D-NH), and Sue Minter (D-VT). One incumbent, Kate Brown (D-OR) is running; since she took office via constitutional succession, this will be her first gubernatorial race. The other four incumbent women (in NM, OK, RI and SC) are not up for election this year.
For chief executives in the states, the record number of candidates filing was 34 (18D, 15R, 1ACP) in 1994. That year, 10 women (6D, 3R, 1IND) won nominations, a figure matched in 2002 (9D, 1R), 2006 (5D, 5R) and 2010 (5D, 5R) – all non-presidential years. The maximum number of women serving as governors was 9, which occurred in 2004 and 2007. Right now, we have six women governors (3D, 3R).
While specifics are still falling into place for the full range of statewide elected executive offices, two states offer interesting possibilities. In Missouri, five women (3D, 2R) are candidates for open seats, including two Black women who – if successful – would be the first Black statewide executives in the Show-Me State. And in New Hampshire, Portsmouth Councilwoman Stefany Shaheen is contemplating a race that could make her the first daughter to follow her mother as a state’s chief executive, since Jeanne Shaheen served three terms as New Hampshire’s governor before winning a U.S. Senate seat. Moreover, if Shaheen won the Democratic primary, she could find herself facing Chris Sununu, son of former Governor and Senator John Sununu, in a new-generation rematch; the senior Sununu defeated the senior Shaheen in her first Senate bid in 2002, but she bested him in a repeat match-up in 2008.
Primaries for statewide and congressional offices begin in March and continue well into September of 2016, so it will be a long time before we know how the races are shaping up – how many women are running, where women are strong contenders for open seats, where we might see woman-versus-woman races or other contests of particular interest. If you want to track the prospects for women candidates, you can visit CAWP’s Election Watch page for updates after each filing date and primary – and of course, on Election Night, November 8, 2016.
The upcoming resignation of Speaker John Boehner created a vacancy on the Republican House leadership ladder, with the anticipated succession of current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the speakership. Would this be the moment to add another woman to the largely male team? Apparently not, with the most logical choice, current GOP Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) choosing to keep her current role rather than seeking to succeed McCarthy. That left no space for Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), who had expressed interest in the conference chair spot if McMorris Rodgers had run for Majority Leader.
Leadership roles in the 114th Congress are largely the province of men on both sides of the aisle. In the Senate, Patty Murray (D-WA) is Democratic Conference Secretary, and the only woman chairing a committee is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. On the House side, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), still the only woman ever to serve as Speaker, has led her party in the House for more than 12 years and remains Democratic Leader. McMorris Rodgers is the sole woman in the GOP leadership, and just one woman, Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-MI) chairs a House committee.
Looking at the numbers of women in each party’s caucus, it’s clear that the GOP has far fewer women, both numerically and proportionately, than the Democrats. Women make up almost a third of the Democratic members of Congress, but less than one eighth of the Republicans.
Total Democrats (%)
Total Republicans (%)
This means that when openings arise, Republicans don’t have a deep bench from which to choose a woman to step up to the plate. And while it’s far too early for meaningful numbers, CAWP’s list of potential candidates for 2016 congressional elections already shows similarly disproportionate numbers building (perhaps because the tally so far includes mostly incumbents and fewer challengers or seekers of open seats).
While many argue that the gender of candidates and officeholders is insignificant, CAWP has decades of research demonstrating varied ways in which women from both parties change both the process of politics and the issues that reach the public docket. Although the contentious clamor of the presidential race makes 2016 seem very close indeed, and although some filing deadlines for 2016 races are as early as November or December of 2015, there’s still time for women to step forward to run – if not for Congress, certainly for state legislatures and local offices. That’s the only route to building the numbers so women are in place and ready to claim leadership roles in the future.
This week, CAWP was lucky to have extern Alexandra Banash join us from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. Working with a fellow Aquinas Saint, CAWP Scholar Kelly Dittmar, Alexandra learned about CAWP’s work and helped conduct CAWP research. As the week came to an end, Kelly and Alexandra had a short conversation about some of the topics that came up throughout the week, and shared their cross-generational insights below.
KD: Why are you interested in the topic of women in politics? What made you interested in coming to CAWP this summer?
AB:I have been interested in politics itself from a very young age. We could say I have then also been interested in women in politics from a young age because of the active participation of women that I have been surrounded by my entire life. I delved into the subject of women and politics as an undergrad at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. As a junior I enrolled in an entry-level women’s studies course. I don’t think from that point on there was a time that I became detached from love of the topic. With that being said, I was interested in coming to CAWP this summer when the chair of the women’s studies department encouraged me to apply for a pilot program. In doing so I had no idea that I was coming to CAWP. Not knowing much about CAWP and not knowing I was coming to CAWP was a curse and a blessing because after my time here I don’t want to leave.
AB: Even if we had equal numbers of men and women on the ballot, do you think that their will ever be a 50/50 distribution between men and women in office?
KD:One of the biggest, and initial, hurdles to political parity is the dearth of female candidates. We know that women women run, women win as much as men in comparable races. In other words, there does not appear to be any blatant bias at the ballot box. However, women make up far less than 50% of candidates for office at all levels, lessening their chances of being on the ballot or being elected to office. There is a great deal of research into whywomen don’t run, as well as efforts by women’s political organizations to encourage, recruit, and support women candidates (CAWP’s Ready to Run is a great example!). I’m confident that if the number of women candidates rose significantly, we would see a quicker move to political parity. But that alone won’t resolve some of the underlying institutional barriers to women’s political power. That will take more significant cultural changes, like redefining and revisioning what it means to be an elected official so that masculinity and men are not assumed the norm and femininity and women assumed as “other.” Rethinking and revising our stereotypical expectations of gender, candidacy, and officeholders is the harder resolution on the road to 50/50, and is one that will both create greater opportunities for women to run and be influenced by women running and serving. I can’t venture to guess whenwe will reach gender parity in office since we’ve seen such a plateau (and some declines) in recent decades, but I do hope we get there – even if that means I am out of a job someday.
KD:This week, you helped analyze data related to Black women’s political representation and engaged in conversations about gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential race. You also learned a bit more about what we do at CAWP. What have you found most interesting or surprising, and why?
AB: Looking at the data overall I am shocked by the numbers that analyze the amount of women in statewide elected executive offices by state. Just 25% of statewide elected executive officials are women and only two of those are Black women. The disparity between the numbers of Black women in office and Black women in the population in some states is almost unfathomable. Looking at state legislative representation, I am alarmed by the fact that only 3.4 percent of all state legislators nationwide are Black women in 2015. I do not expect to see a large increase in 2016, which is very unfortunate. When will this change?
AB: What do you think is the best tool for successful support as a woman when deciding to run for office whether it is on the local, state, or federal level?
KD:We know from research that women make the decision to run differently than men, and support and encouragement is even more essential for them than for men. However, it’s too simple to say that we need to just “ask women to run.” In addition to asking, or encouraging women, to consider a bid for office, we need to provide them the incentive, infrastructure, and roadmap to run successfully. Having the support of political leaders – whether elected officials, formerly elected officials, or party leaders – is often most influential to women’s calculus. If that support is not there, especially from parties (which, according to research, can act as gatekeepers to women’s political power), it’s important for women to be able to look to an alternative support infrastructure. That might include women’s political organizations, personal support networks, or community groups that will back a woman candidate from the time she makes the decision to run until Election Day. Running for office is not easy at any level and women are smart – they need to know that: (1) they can win; (2) there are people behind them; and (3) there are groups or individuals that will help them navigate political terrain successfully.
KD:Recent research on young people’s political ambition finds a gender gap in young men and women’s interest in running for office (with women less likely to want to run). It also finds that women’s confidence in their leadership skills actually declinesin college. Based on your knowledge and experiences, what do you think might be happening? What do you think we can do about it?
AB:The decrease in confidence for women in college might be tied to the limited scope of who is in power today. The rigid two-party system constrains the expansion of opportunity for groups that are marginalized from power. Today, women are a group marginalized from power, which is correlated with the rigid gender binary in society where men have control power relations. The large gap of women to men in our legislative body affects the experiences in our everyday lives. How can we as women become so confident if we don’t have other women behind us? As Shirley Chisholm would say, “My success was exclusively due to the support of women,” adding, “No one will save us but us.”
AB:Transitioning from a small liberal arts school to a large university, can you compare and contrast the power of the students from a political stand point and how does it influence the decisions of the hierarchy of the administration of the school(s)?
KD:Even more than contrasting the power of students at small or large higher education institutions, I think it is important to emphasize the political power students have, but often do not use. Whether it be with their university administration or their member of Congress, students can mobilize to have a great deal of influence. As consumers (at a college or university) and constituents, students are affected directly by the decisions made by leaders in both realms. Like any population, students often struggle to find the time or incentive (or even information needed) to navigate the bureaucracy of government or higher education. I think the key for students across the board is to see themselves as their own best advocates and not count on others to represent their interests. Just like women need a seat at the table, students’ voices need to be heard in the most important policy debates of the day – all of which affect their presents and futures.
KD:There is a chance that we might elect a woman president in 2016. Do you think it will happen? Do you think it matters to have a woman in the White House? Why/why not?
AB:Yes, there is a chance, but I do not believe it will happen. Of course, I would be so ecstatic to even see a woman be the leading candidate on the Republican or Democratic ticket, but we need to see if the level of support is there and we need to see if people get out and vote. Voting is the key; if we can somehow reach out to the people that would most heavily influence and be influenced by a women being in office, I think the vote could change drastically. On that note, I do think it matters to have women in office. In looking at recent data, we have seen a common progression in the ups and downs of the economy, but there has not been any change in who is regulating the economy per se. I also think it is important to note that having women in office would also change the dynamic of the household, shifting roles and making it more of a common solution for women to be in public and private sphere.
KD: Of all of the CAWP staff you have met this week, who is your favorite and why?
AB: Of all of the CAWP staff I have met this week, I would have to say Florence Eagleton (1870-1956; pictured to the right with Alexandra) would have to be my favorite [NOTE: Eagleton is the namesake of the Eagleton institute, not a former or current member of the CAWP staff.] She once said in donating the building that houses CAWP and Eagleton that the purposes should be for, “the development of and education for responsible leadership in civic and governmental affairs and the solution of their political problems.” We have a lot of problems. Somehow we have to fix them.
Over the past two weeks, I traveled through two Nordic countries – Sweden and Denmark – for work and vacation. As I explored both country’s capital cities, the gendered political realities were made clear and distinct from the United States. I’ve pulled together this photo diary of my trip with some facts and observations that might be of interest to those who pay particular attention to women’s political representation at home and abroad.
The Swedish parliament, or Riksdag, nears gender parity in political representation; 43.6% of its members are women. It ranks 5th in the world for women’s parliamentary representation.
While on the tour of parliament, our tour guide noted this fact in passing as if it were to be expected (while the Americans like me noted how far we are from that reality). In fact, she continued to say that they have work to do on representativeness of the body, noting that their LGBT membership (4%) and representation of immigrant communities are still below the national level.
Anna Mahoney (Tulane University), Mary Nugent (Rutgers University), our Swedish Parliament Tour Guide, and me
The Swedish parliament honors their female leaders in the building, including a “women’s room” with an exhibit celebrating women’s political leadership and urging the next generation of women to follow in their footsteps. The caption below the mirror reads: “This could be you.”
The Danish parliament, or Folketinget, boasts fewer women than Sweden, but still ranks 16th in the world for women’s parliamentary representation – 56 spots above the US; 38% of its members were women going into the parliamentary elections held last week.
Denmark held its parliamentary elections last week while I was visiting, and the number of women’s campaign signs appeared to outnumber men’s signs. While not an indicator of candidate totals (only 36% of all799 candidates were women), the visible presence of women in all aspects of the election was striking.
Women are at the helm in 3 of 10 of Denmark’s major parties, demonstrating their political power is not only in numbers, but also in status.
Most obviously, Denmark entered last Thursday’s election with a female prime minister – Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the nation’s first female prime minister and head of the Social Democrats. While Thorning-Schmidt’s party fared well in the election, her bloc lost the majority and she resigned her seat as prime minister. However, as she noted on Election Night, “I was Denmark’s first female prime minister, but I won’t be the last.” Side note: Politicians are very accessible in a country of just 5.6 million. On Election Day, I ran into the prime minister at a hot dog stand in Norreport, Copenhagen.
And then I saw some MPs celebrating outside parliament as the returns came in.
Denmark is also home to the television series Borgen, about the fictional first female prime minister of the country. I highly recommend the series to anyone who loves politics, and I’d argue that it is one of the best portrayals of a woman at the peak of political power. The series is now available on Netflix.
While taking the Borgentour, I learned that many believe the series influenced parliamentary debates and may have even primed the country for electing its first female prime minister (which it did after the second season aired). Recent murmurings of an US version of Borgenmay cue questions about whether life will imitate art or art may imitate life in the case of a female head of state in our country.