- Hillary Clinton could make a giant leap for women in government if she wins the White House
- On Capitol Hill, it has been smaller steps in recent years
The United States could strike a blow for gender equality in November by electing its first woman president, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But the steady progress women have achieved winning seats in the House and Senate has slowed.
Today, women make up roughly half of the US population, but hold only 19.4% of the seats in Congress.
And those numbers aren’t likely to rise much after after November 8, even with 183 total female congressional candidates on the ballot this fall.
In the Senate there are now 20 female lawmakers. According to the Rutgers Center for Women in Politics, 16 women are running for the upper chamber — 12 Democrats and four Republicans. But some of the female candidates are in considerably more competitive races than others. So it’s unlikely there will be more than 23 women senators come January 2017. And if Senate races in Nevada and Pennsylvania with female Democratic candidates don’t go the party’s way, the number could stay static at 20.
Across the Capitol there are currently 84 female House members serving, out of 435 seats, good for 19.3% in the chamber. In the fall elections a total of 167 women candidates are running in House races — 120 Democrats and 47 Republicans, according to Rugters. Again, only fraction of these contests are truly competitive, so it’s unclear if there will be a net rise in women House members.
Still, while women will continue to hold only about a fifth of congressional seats, give or take, there has been real progress in female service on Capitol Hill in recent decades. That began in earnest in 1992, the “Year of the Women,” when a swath of female lawmakers nabbed congressional races as Bill Clinton — husband of the current Democratic nominee — won the White House. That year four women were elected to the Senate and the number of women who would serve in the House rose from 28 to 47.
By 2012 the number of women in Congress had hit record highs, with 20 women in the Senate and 80 in the House. However, the number of women in Congress has risen at an exceptionally slow rate.
“So we went from 54 to 57 to 63 to 65 to 73 to 74, so you’re just going up and you’re only netting a couple of women each year,” said Kelly Dittmar at the Rutgers Center for Women in Politics. “When we hit 100 women in Congress, there was a big celebration. And what I always sort of remind my students is that the denominator matters, so it’s now a 104 out of 535 [total House and Senate congressional seats]. We’re just not seeing those big jumps. It would take a long time because we’re only netting a couple of women in Congress every year.”
Studies cite a range of factors for why it has taken so long to close the congressional gender gap. Long-time tenures by male incumbents and a weak recruitment structure are among the stronger indicators.
According to Politifact, roughly 95% of congressional incumbents running in the 2014 were re-elected. When men already hold about 80% of the seats, that creates fewer openings for women successors.
That dynamic is on clear display in Arizona, where Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is well behind in her bid to oust Sen. John McCain, first elected in 1986. In Pennsylvania Democrats stand a considerable better chance with their nominee, who is seeking to send Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s career in the upper chamber after a single, six-year term. In Nevada, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto is facing off against Rep. Joe Heck, in a race that could go either way.
“If there are less opportunities, its harder to get newcomers in, and women are still to a certain extent newcomers,” Dittmar said.
Overall in 2016 there’s likely to be relatively little churn in female Senate membership. Fifteen incumbent women senators will remain in their seats for the 115th Congress, as they’re not up for re-election in November. In New Hampshire, one of the most hotly-contested Senate races, incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte is being challenged by another women candidate, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. And in California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer is retiring after 24 years in the seat, she’s all but certain to have a female successor, fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, the state attorney general. Harris’s opponent is Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
In Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, is favored to defeat Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk.
There will be a bit of backsliding, though. In Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen defeated a woman, Rep. Donna Edwards, to become the Democratic nominee — tantamount to victory in that state — and replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. A 30-year Senate veteran, after ten in the House, Mikulski was the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, before Democrats lost the majority in 2014.
Open seat success
Focusing on open House and Senate seats has proven to be a reliable workaround for women running, and organizations pushing for more women in Congress, such as the Democratic EMILY’s List and the Republican Maggie’s List.
“We really focus on open seats where there is an opportunity to get a woman in right up front,” EMILY’s List Executive Director Jessica O’Connell said. “That is the best opportunity to elect more women with more diverse perspectives.”
Maggie’s List National Executive Director Missy Shorey also encourages potential candidates to focus on open seats.
“I have had to tell very, very qualified candidates, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t the right district,'” Shorey said. “Like any smart political person, you’re going to seek out where there is the least resistance.”
Little getting done
There’s another problem: gridlock. Like most candidates, women office-seekers aim to pass laws — a challenge in the current Capitol Hill environment where neither the House or Senate are doing much. That can be a real turnoff when recruiting candidates.
“If it looks like politics doesn’t work to get things done, women are going to be less likely to say they want to do it,” Dittmar said. “Not because they don’t think they can, or they have no confidence. But because they also might not think it is rationally a good decision or a good use of their time, or a good avenue to get anything done.”
Dittmar points to a survey conducted by Center for American Women and Politics that suggests there is actually real gender divide among prospective lawmakers on this point.
“When we asked what was your number one reason for running for office, women said there was a public policy issue I cared deeply about. For men, the number one reason was ‘because I always wanted to be in elected office,'” Dittmar said.
That’s exemplified by a pair of 2016 female House candidates.
Consider Annette Taddeo in Florida’s 26th District. This summer she lost a contentious Democratic primary battle to former Rep. Joe Garcia, in one the districts party strategists have the highest hopes for in defeating a Republican incumbent.
Taddeo, who immigrated to the US from Colombia when she was 17, said having a voice in a male-dominated Congress drove her to get involved.
“Like my Daddy always told me, if you don’t have a voice on the table, you may be on the menu,” Taddeo said. “The way they tried to defund Planned Parenthood, a place I personally depended on when I didn’t have the money to go to the doctor, and Planned Parenthood was my doctor. I mean there are just so many reasons why we need our voices at the table.”
Then there’s Casey Lucius in California’s 20th District, on the Golden State’s central coast. She’s the underdog in this open district, facing the son of a prominent Democratic official — prosecutor Jimmy Panetta, whose father, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, held the House seat for 16 years before serving a range in top-level positions in the past two Democratic administrations.
“The reason I initially decided to run was because I’m a professor, and I’d been teaching classes on national security,” said Lucius, who is a former intelligence officer and Navy veteran. “I was feeling frustrated by our lack of national security strategy and lack of foreign policy. So I really was driven by the need to offer policy solutions.”
Both women say they have received different treatment than their male counterparts in the political world.
“The feedback that I get from people is about what I’m wearing for my makeup, or my hair, and I’m thrilled when I get a question of substance, about where do I stand on a particular policy issue,” Lucius said.
The mother of one says being a parent has caused others to view her House bid negatively.
“I have a six-year-old, and people will say, ‘Well who takes care of your child?’ And I say, ‘My husband, his father.’ Or people will say, “Why don’t you wait until he graduates from high school, then you can run for office,'” Lucius recalled. “And again, my opponent has two young children, and I wonder if he gets these questions, and I doubt it.”
Taddeo had run office before, in a previous House race and as the 2014 running mate of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who sought his old job — unsuccessfully — as a Democrat. Taddeo has raced a double standard, she said.
“In a description in one of the papers it was, ‘Annette has run three times.’ And in the description it said, ‘Annette is shopping for a seat.’ never mind that when I ran for lieutenant governor I was actually asked to be the running mate,” she said. “But you know, my opponent has run, I don’t know, five, six times. But you know the man is a ‘fighter’ and the woman is ‘shopping.’ So that really caught my attention because it really is a double standard.”
While female politicians are likely to face barriers on the campaign trail and in office, there are organizations that recruit women to become involved in the process, offering help throughout.
“It’s so important that there is an infrastructure of support for women running to say, ‘Here’s what you need to know, here’s who can be there to back you and have your back, whether that be in taking on some of that unfair treatment or backing them financially or in any other way,'” Dittmar said.
O’Connell, the EMILY’s List executive director, emphasized the importance of financially supporting and recruiting women to run for elected office.
“We have a whole campaign program that goes out around the country and meets with women leaders and communities,” O’Connell said. “We make sure we have their back all the way through the process to help them have the resources that they need to have a strong campaign to win.”
Financial support has proven to be one of the most important parts of the support system Emily’s List provides.
“We’ve raised over $400 million on behalf of our women candidates and I think that people understand the needs at the core of the campaigns to make them competitive,” O’Connell said.
Maggie’s Last, the Republican group supporting female candidates, shares the goal of recruiting and financially supporting women seeking public office, of course from the GOP side.
Established in 2010, Maggie’s List has endorsed over 100 women running for Congress in primaries and general elections. The PAC’s past and current candidates include Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Joni Ernst, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Rep. Renee Ellmers, Rep. Mia Love, and the group’s congressional chair, Rep. Mimi Walters.
Like EMILY’s List, Maggie’s List has implemented a recruiting system aimed at evaluating and supporting potential candidates and candidates.
“We have to look at this overall and say, ‘Does this seat make sense?’ Number two, we have to look at what this woman demonstrated the ability to win elections,” said Missy Shorey, the group’s executive director. “We have 39 state chairs around the country and they can tell you if the woman can win in the district or not.”
Shorey and other from Maggie’s List looked at California’s 20th Congressional District, and decided to invest in Lucius as a candidate.
“It’s an open seat. It’s normally a Democratic district, but if you look at it, there’s a tremendous amount of independent voters. They are security voters first and foremost. In Monterey, California, they have a strong military and retiree presence,” Shorey said. “They’re very concerned about international security and national security. Our candidate happens to have a Ph.D. in national security, has written a strategic plan on how we beat ISIS. Between Republican numbers and independent numbers, that seat is competitive.”
Prior to becoming a Republican congressional candidate, Lucius was not widely known outside of her district. However, PACs like Maggie’s List can help give candidates the name recognition needed in a general election.
“I find it very encouraging to know that there are organizations out there who are forward thinking, and they’re advocating, and they’re on my side,” Lucius said.