More women are running for political office this year than ever before. That is remarkable, given that feminism suffered a tough blow in the United States 2016 election. Not only did the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee and former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mean that women have yet to shatter the highest political glass ceiling in the United States, but the number of women in Congress and state legislatures failed to increase as well.
The minor increase of elected women is especially striking when placed in context. While the latter three decades of the twentieth century were characterized by a steady growth and later surge in female representation, the number of women in Congress has stayed relatively constant over the last election cycles. But next week’s election might shake things up.
The 116th Congress is expected to consist of a record number of women. Currently, there are 23 women serving in the U.S. Senate and 84 women in the House of Representatives, comprising 19.3% of House members. Only six states have a woman serving as their governor. Without intervention, the United States Congress will not eliminate the gender gap until 2117. The election of Donald Trump and defeat of Hillary Clinton might prove to be such an intervention.
Almost 500 women have filed to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, an increase of nearly 60 percent compared to the previous high in 2012. Unfortunately, many of these women ran in highly competitive districts or faced an incumbent as their opponent – greatly decreasing their chances. However, 235 of women candidates won their primaries. This is a promising number, knowing that only 167 women won their House primaries in 2016.
Interestingly, these candidates are not at all evenly divided by party: 78 percent of women candidates running for the House are Democrats. For U.S. Senate races, this is 65 percent. Scholars offer several explanations. Democratic women are more likely to be recruited for office and receive encouragement from elected officials and political activists, they are better represented in ‘pipeline professions’ (professions often held prior to running for political office, such as law, business, education, and politics). And more women’s organizations – such as EMILY’s List – focus on the recruitment and financial support of pro-choice, Democratic women. Moreover, women are still perceived to hold more moderate views than men. As the most conservative candidate usually wins Republican primaries, Republican women have to combat the perception that they are less conservative than their male counterparts.
This record number of women running and the fact that gender has emerged as an important theme in the 2018 midterm, doesn’t mean that the gender gap will be closed this year. As became apparent during the Kavanaugh hearings, party identification trumps gender when it comes to voting. Even though women are more likely to identify as Democrats, both men and women rarely cross party lines. This was also the case in 2016, when polls showed that 89 percent of Republican women voted for Trump. Polls show that this percentage is even higher this year. Moreover, party, race, education and class also divide female voters. Another important factor is turnout, as the gender gap does not automatically benefit Democrats. Higher than average turnout among white women in 2016 helped Donald Trump, so Democrats are relying on higher turnout among African-American women, Latinas and college-educated this year.
More transformational is the fact that women have changed the way in which they market themselves on the campaign trail. Women no longer want or need to conform to this playbook written by white male candidates. This year, women have re-written the campaign playbook. In campaign ads, women are taking their children to work, showing their tattoos and wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of the traditional pantsuit. MJ Hegar, a veteran and House candidate from Texas, released a powerful ad focusing on her early experiences with domestic abuse, her career as an Air Force officer and her efforts fighting discrimination towards women. This not only shows voters the incredible diversity of women candidates, it will send a clear message to women who are thinking about running for office and even young girls that they themselves can write their own playbook.
Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. For the John Adams Institute she will write several blogs on the midterm elections. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.