As CAWP gets ready to welcome NPR’s Michel Martin as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Lecturer in Women’s Political Leadership, you might sign up to attend without knowing anything about the woman for whom the lectureship is named. Your interest might be further piqued by discovering the roster of extraordinary African American women who have already been Lipman Lecturers; beginning with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the list includes powerhouses such as former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, law professor Patricia Williams, Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, political strategist Donna Brazile, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, PBS host Gwen Ifill, Obama advisors Valerie Jarrett and Melody Barnes, and NPR host Michele Norris. Who was the woman whose life we celebrate with these exciting annual lectures? As we wind up Black History Month and head into Women’s History Month, it’s an appropriate moment to find out.
Senator Wynona Lipman was the first African American woman in New Jersey’s State Senate, serving from 1971 until her death in 1999. A Georgia native, Lipman earned her Ph.D. in French at Columbia and taught for many years, confronting racism that kept her from a full-time professorship in her area of expertise. She got involved with politics through the local PTA and NAACP, ultimately becoming the chairman of Montclair’s Democrats and then an Essex County Freeholder before moving up to the State Senate. Her biography provides the details.
But the heart of the story is this: Throughout her more than quarter-century tenure in Trenton, Senator Lipman carried the water on almost every key piece of legislation for women, children, families, small businesses, and minorities. We asked Alma Saravia, Senator Lipman’s longtime aide, for reminiscences about the path-breaking senator. In her words: I worked with Senator Lipman for many years as the Executive Director of the Commission on Sex Discrimination in the Statutes. The Commission was mandated to conduct a systematic study of the statutes to determine whether the laws were discriminatory or whether the absence thereof resulted in women being denied full equal protection under the law. As Senator Lipman stated: “[m]any of the state’s laws contain discriminatory provisions based upon sex and reflect policy judgments which are no longer accepted by our society.” (Trenton Times, June 28, 1979) The legislation enacted as a result of her considerable efforts changed the lives of many of New Jersey’s citizens. Senator Lipman’s distinguished legislative record included sponsoring bills related to her deep-seated commitment to children’s rights, the rights of women and the disenfranchised and to assuring that health care and essential services were provided to New Jersey’s residents. Her record of getting more bills signed into law than most legislators stands today. In addition, Senator Lipman’s powers of persuasion were legendary. When she wanted a bill to go forward she passionately advocated for her legislation and she often “wore down” her colleagues. Senator Lipman knew that there was strength in numbers. Many of the bills recommended by the Commission were enacted with the strong support of other organizations or individuals. From law professors to ordinary citizens, Senator Lipman understood that their voices counted in lobbying for a bill. With the formation of alliances came the knowledge that compromises must be made – a “half a loaf is better than none.” There is also no doubt that Senator Lipman’s legislative success was attributable to her strong belief in the need for the legislation. Whether it was the establishment of the State’s first domestic violence act, child support laws, the parentage act, economic equity legislation, recognizing Advanced Practice Nurses, or AIDS related legislation, her ground-breaking bills reflected her belief in those issues. There was no mistaking her deep passion and commitment to social justice and equality. What would Senator Lipman be doing today if she were still in the Senate? No doubt addressing the same kinds of issues, speaking out loudly on behalf of the under-represented, and bringing both her intellect and her powers of persuasion to bear to identify and banish all vestiges of discrimination. In her absence, we draw on the wisdom of the Lipman lecturers to point us toward what others must do to move forward.
When the 114th Congress convenes today, 104 women (76D, 28R) will serve among the 535 members, representing 19.4% of the new Congress. Four more women will serve as non-voting delegates to the House from American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. Twenty women (14D, 6R) will serve in the Senate (20%) and 84 women (62D, 22R) will serve in the House (19.3%). At the close of the 113th Congress, one hundred women (77D, 23R) held office, including 20 women (16D, 4R) in the Senate and 80 women (61D, 19R) in the House. Before Representative Alma Adams’ (NC-12) victory in November’s special election, 99 women (76D, 23R) served in the 113th Congress. The net increase in women’s representation is five, or 0.9%, since the fall election.
Women in the 114th Congress, by Chamber
Just under one-third of women members in the 114th Congress are women of color. A record 32 women of color (29D, 3R) will serve in the House, making up 38% of women in that chamber. In the Senate, however, Mazie Hirono (D-HI) remains the only woman of color among 20 female members (5%). Thirty women of color (28D, 2R) served in the 113th Congress before November, increasing by one (31: 29D, 2R) with Adams’ special election.
Among all women who will serve, 14 women are newly elected to their chambers. Two women (2R) are newcomers to the U.S. Senate: former Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joni Ernst (R-IA). Twelve women (7D, 5R) are newcomers to the U.S. House: Martha McSally (R-AZ); Norma Torres (D-CA); Mimi Walters (R-CA); Gwen Graham (D-FL); Debbie Dingell (D-MI); Brenda Lawrence (D-MI); Alma Adams (D-NC); Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ); Kathleen Rice (D-NY); Elise Stefanik (R-NY); Mia Love (R-UT); Barbara Comstock (R-VA). The new delegate is Stacey Plaskett (D-VI). Nearly half of the new members of the House, 5 of 12 (41.7%), are women of color: Adams, Lawrence, Love, Torres, and Watson Coleman. Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) is also among the new Black women in Congress. Utah’s Love is the first Black Republican woman to serve in Congress. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), age 30, is the youngest woman to serve in Congress, taking over that title from former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who was 31 when she took office in 1973.
New Women in Congress, by Chamber and Congress
States Four states – IA, NJ, UT, and VA – will go from no women representing them in the 113th Congress to one woman in their congressional delegations in 2015. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) is the first woman ever to serve in Congress from Iowa. Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Mia Love (R-UT) are the first Black women to represent their states in Congress. Representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA) is the first woman to serve in Virginia’s congressional delegation in two decades. Two states – PA and LA – will go from having one woman representing them in the 113th Congress to no women in their congressional delegations in 2015. They will join 11 other states that continue to have all-male delegations in Washington: AR, DE, GA, ID, KY, MS, MT, OK, RI, SC, and VT. Among these states, MS and VT have never had women in their congressional delegations; the others have had women in the past. Parties As the Republicans take over both chambers of Congress, women represent 9.3% of all majority members (38 of 301). Women are 11.1% of all Republicans in the Senate (6 of 54) and just 8.9% of all Republicans in the House (22 of 247) in 2015. Despite Republican gains overall in the 2014 elections, Republican women remain a small percentage of their congressional caucuses. In the 113th Congress, Republican women were 8.2% of all Republican members, including 8.9% of Republican Senators and 8.1% of Republican Representatives. Democratic women, on the other hand, represent one-third of all Democratic members of Congress in 2015 (76 of 234). Women are 30.4% of all Democrats in the Senate (14 of 46) and 33% of all Democrats in the House (62 of 188). In the 113th Congress, Democratic women were 30.3% of all Democratic members, including 30.2% of Democratic Senators and 30.3% of Democratic Representatives.
Women in Party Caucuses, by Chamber and Congress
One of the most circulated “women’s stories” of this week’s election has been the celebration of reaching 100 women in Congress. Because Alma Adams (D-NC) was elected in both her special election and general election contest, she will be sworn in to the 113th Congress next week and cause the number of women in the House to move from 79 to 80, and thus the overall number of women in Congress to reach 100 from 99. Reaching this marker is no small feat, as those of us who study and work with women in politics know. Just over two decades ago, in the 102nd Congress, only one-third (32) as many women served. Even more, it was not until Shirley Chisholm’s election to the House in 1968 that a Black woman served in Congress. Alma Adams becomes the 32nd Black women to serve in Congress, and was one of four new Black women members elected to the 114th Congress on Tuesday. In fact, women of color will make up over one-third of the House women’s caucus in 2015, as they have in the 113th Congress.
First, those 100 women in Congress serve in a 535-member body (combining House and Senate). Doing the math yields a number far less worthy of celebration: 18.7%. Even with 100 members, women are less than one-fifth of Congress, despite being over 50% of the U.S. population. Second, we hit 100 women in Congress on Tuesday from a starting point of 99. Even if all remaining races with women candidates break in their favor, only 105 women will serve in the 114th Congress. That’s a net increase of six in the best case scenario for women, indicating a pace of progress that’s hardly impressive. Third, even among new members of Congress, women remain seriously underrepresented. According to the latest numbers of new members of the 114th Congress (with some races still undecided), women will be 19% of the freshman class. This isn’t terribly surprising when women make up a similarly low proportion of nominees going into Election Day. I don’t point out these statistics to discount the success of the women who put themselves forward for congressional offices this year. They are on the front lines of progress, doing what’s needed to disrupt the relatively stagnant trends I note here. For example, our two new women senators are the first women elected to the U.S. Senate from their states. Among the new women in the House, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Mia Love (R-UT) are the first Black women from their states to serve in Congress. They are joined by female trailblazers at other levels of office this year, from Gina Raimondo’s election as the first woman governor of Rhode Island to the addition of 10 new Republican women in statewide elected executive offices nationwide. Rhode Island’s newly-elected Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is the first Latina elected statewide in all of the northeast, Evelyn Sanguinetti (Illinois) was elected as the nation's first Latina Lieutenant Governor, and Maura Healey will become the first openly LGBT person to serve as a state’s Attorney General next year. We should not overlook or reduce the accomplishments of these women, but I raise the concerns above to ensure that the narrative of women’s success is not so overstated by one statistic that it yields complacency. We can all take a minute to celebrate this marker of women’s progress, and more importantly the women who’ve marked it, but let’s also note where 100 falls short and what we can do to move well beyond it in elections to come.
And for those who fear gender exclusivity of any stripe, let’s look at recent electoral history. Over 60% of general election U.S. House races in the past decade have been all-male contests, and 85% of uncontested candidates have been men.
About two-thirds of general election races for the U.S. Senate have been between two male candidates, and 80 of 106 gubernatorial races between 2004 and 2012 had no women. In contrast, about 2% of U.S. House races, 4% of U.S. Senate races, and less than 2% of gubernatorial contests in the past decade have been all-female. And of course, men-only races at each of these levels of office only increase the further back we look.
Gender exclusivity in electoral contests should not be a goal, but it has been a reality for male candidates for far too long. For women to increase their political representation, they need to be more present as candidates. And if woman vs. woman races are a surefire way to get more women into office, then maybe an increase in gender exclusivity for women candidates actually means greater gender inclusivity in today’s politics.