Today, we watch as Barack Obama is sworn into his second term as President of the United States. Four years ago, Obama made history as the first African American to win a major party nomination for the presidency and, ultimately, take the oath of office. But President Obama wasn’t the only candidate to make history in 2008. Hillary Clinton won more votes (18,000) and more delegates (1010) than any unsuccessful presidential primary candidate in history. She made history as only the second woman to have her name formally placed into nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, and left the campaign amidst speculation that she would run again in 2012 or 2016. That speculation has hardly died down and, despite Clinton’s own claims that her candidacy is unlikely, the most recent polls show Clinton as the most popular contender for the 2016 contest. As we celebrate the history being made today on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the women who have blazed a path toward the White House and the potential for a woman to take the oath of office in years to come. Two women became candidates for the presidency in the nineteenth century before they could even cast ballots themselves. Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884 were both nominated as presidential candidates by a group of reformers identifying themselves as the Equal Rights Party. As the first woman to practice law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lockwood knew what it felt like to stand alone and did so again in her second presidential bid in 1888. It wasn’t until 1964, 76 years after Lockwood’s second bid, that Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine became the first female candidate to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party convention, winning twenty-seven delegate votes from three states. Eight years later, in 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first woman and the first African American to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a Democratic National Convention, winning 151.95 delegate votes.
Between 1987 and 2003, three women – Democrat Pat Schroeder (1987), Republican Elizabeth Dole (1999), and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (2003) - put their names forward as presidential contenders, but all stepped off the trail before the first primary votes were cast. In 2012, Republican Michele Bachmann left the campaign trail 24 hours after placing sixth in the first Republican primary. In 2007, Ruth B. Mandel described the legacy of the women who ran for presidency in this way:
They made a claim on public awareness by attaching voices and living images of accomplished woman leaders to the idea that one day a woman could conceivably be president. Their actions made the idea less outrageous to conceive.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment as she conceded the Democratic primary, telling the crowd,
You can be so proud, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.
Speculation has already begun about who will run, and who can win, the presidency in 2016. Some women, most notably Hillary Clinton, are among the names being floated as serious contenders. Still, the presidency remains arguably the most masculine office in the land – presenting obstacles well-understood by the women who have run. As she fought to allow women to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago, Belva Lockwood said, “The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents.” While women have (slowly) worked to establish a precedent of women running for major party presidential nominations, our generation has yet to set a precedent of a female commander-in-chief. So as we celebrate the political history made today, let us consider the political history women have left to make.
Earlier this week, a colleague was speaking to a community group about women in the 2012 elections and CAWP’s work to increase women’s political representation. The first question she was asked, in light of the tragedy that struck Newtown, Connecticut just days earlier, was what role women in office would play in the ensuing legislative debate over gun control. Where do the current female members of Congress stand on gun issues? And does the increased number of women in office make it more (or less) likely that anti-gun measures will pass? There are no concrete answers to these questions, as “gun control” encompasses myriad types of reforms and the women in congress do not represent a unified bloc on this or any issue. But looking to history might be helpful to formulating hypotheses about what role women might play if gun control is, in fact, put on the legislative agenda. In 1994, Congress passed a ten-year assault weapons ban (AWB) under a title of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (HR 3355) by a vote of 235 to 195. At the time, there were 54 women in Congress – just 10% representation. Despite these numbers, women played a prominent role in the 1994 ban. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was the architect and chief sponsor of the AWB and worked tirelessly to get enough votes to attach it to the Senate version of the crime bill. In the House, women were disproportionately represented among the members whipping the vote to be sure that the bill included the ban.
When it came to a vote, 83% of the women in the House, and all but one woman in the Senate, voted in favor of the assault weapons ban; men were more evenly split, with 50% of men in the House and 59% of men in the Senate voting for the ban. Partisanship plays an important role in votes on this issue, but women in both parties were more likely to vote for the ban than were their male counterparts (see charts). Much has changed since 1994. Women have nearly doubled their representation in Congress – when the 113th Congress begins on January 3rd, women will take 18% (or 98) of the House and Senate seats. With that increase comes greater regional, racial, and ideological diversity among the women who serve. Probably most different is the increased conservatism among the Republican women who now serve, which may make it harder than it was 18 years ago to find bipartisan support for new restrictions on gun ownership. Because there have been so few gun control votes in recent years, one of the only indicators we have of potential support for such legislation is National Rifle Association (NRA) ratings. Based on grades given to members of the 113th Congress, women represent a disproportionate percentage of the House (34%) and Senate (37%) members labeled as anti-gun by the NRA. However, the NRA grades all 20 Republican women in the House and 3 of 4 female Republican senators as strongly pro-gun; one female House Democrat and one Democratic woman in the Senate are also given “A” grades by the gun lobby. The context (post-Newtown) and content (e.g. only targeting assault weapons) of any pending legislative debate matters and may yield votes that do not mirror these particular ratings, but only time will tell. What we do know for now is that Senator Feinstein has vowed to re-introduce an updated assault weapons ban when the congressional session opens in January and, if history is any guide, will fight furiously to garner support in both chambers. Some pro-gun members have already said they would be open to restrictions on military-grade weapons, and House Democrat Carolyn McCarthy (NY), a long-time anti-gun advocate, has vowed she will give “full force” to reform efforts and will “embarrass” President Obama if he does not stay true to his promise of policy change. It’s no surprise that these two women will be leading the charge to respond to recent gun tragedies. Both women know intimately the horrors of gun violence and have used personal tragedies to fuel policy priorities. Moreover, they represent constituencies beyond their geographic borders, speaking on behalf of women in the electorate who – based on yesterday’s Pew Poll - are significantly more likely than men to prioritize gun control over gun rights. It will take both men and women at all levels to change our nation’s policies around guns, and having more women in Congress does not guarantee movement in either direction – holding firm on rights or putting more restrictions in place. But, women – as politicians, advocates, and citizens - will be essential players in this national debate.
Just one week after 19 new women were elected to the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference with the current caucus of Democratic women members to announce that she would once again put her name forward for the Democrat’s top spot in the House. Raising some eyebrows and eliciting heckles from the cadre of women on the stage, journalist Luke Russert suggested that her decision to stay on posed obstacles to leadership for younger members. After noting that the same question is never asked of men in leadership, the 72 year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight pointed to the gendered dimension of members’ ages:
"I knew that my male colleagues...had a jump on me because they didn't have children to stay home [with]. …You got to take off about 14 years from me because I was home raising a family."
Pelosi’s comments raise important questions to consider for today’s class of women officeholders. As has been historically true, do women enter office at later ages than their male counterparts? Are they more likely to wait until their children are older to run and serve? And, finally, what does this mean for increasing women’s representation? Let’s take a look at the newly sworn-in 113th House of Representatives. The average age of all members is about 56 years old, but the key statistic of interest for these questions is the average age at which members took office. In the 113th, the average age of taking office is just over 47 years old, but there is a significant difference between male and female members: women’s average age of entering the House is 50.2 years old and men average 46.7 years old upon taking their congressional oath of office. While not the 14-year expanse cited by Pelosi, this data demonstrates that women continue to enter office – in this case, congressional office – later than their male colleagues, which has implications for institutional seniority and leadership posts. When we include all members into these calculations, some of the most gender-significant age divides – those tied to childbearing and childrearing – may be disguised. Another cut at the congressional membership shows that about 19% of female members in the 113th took office at age 40 or under, compared to 25% of male members. Of the 83 freshman members (64 male, 19 female), 32 men and only 1 woman currently have children under age 18. Put more clearly, half of the new male members come to Washington, DC while their children are still at home and all but one of the new female members either have no children or have adult children. In survey responses, female state legislators are significantly more likely than their male colleagues to say that their decision to run for office was influenced by their children being “old enough.” Not only does this finding have implications for women who start their political career in the state legislatures before heading to Congress, but it also echoes Leader Pelosi’s sentiment regarding the unique responsibilities and considerations that women confront in making the decision to enter public office. Children and families are not the sole source of delay for women. Women’s motivations for office are more likely to emerge from issue involvement over time rather than a long-time desire to hold office, which is more common among men. Moreover, women continue to need greater encouragement to run for office, and often feel the need to gather greater experience and/or training than their male peers. Regardless of the cause for delay, women’s later entry into office at both the state legislative and congressional levels can have real implications for women’s institutional power, political advancement, and ambition and/or ability to seek higher office. At her November press conference, Leader Pelosi expressed hope for the next generation of women leaders, saying, “I want women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age so that their seniority would start to count much sooner.” To meet that desire, more will need to be done to both encourage and enable young women to run for office. A nudge from the first female Speaker of the House is probably not a bad place to start.
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.
“She came home one day and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to run for president.’ I said, ‘Kate, that’s not going to happen. Why are you asking me this?’ She said, ‘You know what, Mom? Because I want to be the first woman president.’”With the dearth of women at all levels of political office, we can’t count on political moms or dads to be the sole motivators for women to run. Nor would we want to discourage the innumerable qualified women from running because they were not born into political access or privilege. However, as research shows, we need to do better in filling the pipeline of potential women candidates, and that means looking at all options and pathways to office, including being engaged with and inspired by parents who participate in politics – whether as elected officials, advocates, or engaged citizens. Research shows that familial socialization vís a vís politics can increase women’s likelihood of considering running for office later in life, so parental political engagement in any capacity can foster an environment in which more daughters are willing to run. The history of political kinship in American politics is long, and the Kennedys are likely the clearest example of an American political dynasty. In fact, a Kennedy has served in the U.S. Congress in all but two of the last 67 years. Of all of the Kennedys who have served in elected office since 1892, however, only one has been a woman. In 1995, Robert Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, became lieutenant governor of Maryland and the first Kennedy woman to hold an elected office. Townsend is not the first, but is now among a growing class of women who have disrupted the patrilineal threads of political kinship. And, who knows, we may soon be talking about Chelsea, Malia, Sasha, or Kate among the newest generation of political daughters!
- Latinas are running for lieutenant governor this year in FL, IL, NV, and TX. Since no Latina has ever served as lieutenant governor in any state, a win by any of the four would make history. To date, only 9 Latinas have ever held statewide elected executive offices.
- Five Black women, all Democrats, are running for statewide elected executive offices in Georgia, each with the potential to make history as the first Black woman to hold a statewide elected executive post in that state.[iv] To date, only 10 Black women have ever held statewide elected executive offices in any state.
- If elected in New Mexico, lieutenant governor candidate Debra Haaland (D) would be the first Native American woman elected lieutenant governor and the second Native American woman elected to a statewide elected executive office nationwide.
- If elected in Massachusetts, Maura Healey (D) would be the first openly LGBT attorney general in the nation.
- These statewide elected executive office candidates would be the first women in their states to hold the positions they are seeking:
- Liz Johnson (D), GA insurance commissioner
- Robbin Shipp (D), GA labor commissioner
- Valerie Wilson (D), GA state school superintendent
- Janet Stewart (D), NE attorney general
- Holli High Woodings (D), ID secretary of state
- Ginny Deerin (D), SC secretary of state