Women Enjoy Political Gains, but Advocates Want More

November 13, 2018

Wall Street Journal: Women Enjoy Political Gains, but Advocates Want More

By Janet Hook and Julie Bykowicz

A record number of women will be in the U.S. Congress next year, fueled in part by political donations from women that surged past $1 billion by mid-October, the highest level ever for a midterm election.

The House will have at least 102 women next year, up from 84 this year. It will likely have a woman as speaker, if Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California wins her bid, and some women will rise to House committee leadership posts. The $1 billion women donated was more than twice what they gave four years ago, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzed all individual donations of more than $200. Women accounted for about 30% of the money contributed through such donations.

“We think of it as a sea change for women in politics,” Emily Cain, executive director of Emily’s List, said of the midterms at a panel hosted by Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. Emily’s List backs female candidates who support abortion rights.

But even after this year’s wins by female candidates, women will remain heavily underrepresented in the upper reaches of the nation’s political power.

The number of women in the House remains less than a quarter of the chamber’s 435 members. The number of female senators is unchanged, at 23, although that figure could rise to 24 if Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith wins a runoff in Mississippi. And the number of female governors will increase, to nine of 50.

Advocates for more women in politics are working to sustain this year’s momentum.

“We just have to stick with it and remember that women’s political equality was never going to be earned in a single election year—no matter how many times folks wanted to tout another ‘year of the woman,’ ” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Ms. Dittmar and others argue that policy makers with a wide range of backgrounds and experience produced better and more fair outcomes.

“When you have diversity at decision-making tables, those differences make a difference,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, a nonpartisan group that promotes black women in politics.

The new class of women in Congress will also bring a dose of ethnic and racial diversity: More than one-third of the 34 Democratic women joining the House are people of color.

The newcomers include the House’s first two Native American women—Deb Haaland (D., N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D., Kan.). They also include the House’s first two Muslim women—Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), a Somali-American, and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), a Palestinian-American.

And the five new black women bring a range of life experiences: They include a state legislator, a city councilwoman, a teacher a nurse, and a mother with no political experience who ran after her son was killed in a 2012 shooting.

Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan group that trains female candidates to run for political office, said she expected women to remain highly motivated after 2018 in part because there were some defeats for women, including the apparent loss of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, although she hasn’t conceded defeat in the race.

“I’m not worried that this is a one-time thing,” said Ms. Vilardi. “I think female voters and female candidates that ran expected more of a repudiation of Trump, and they didn’t get it.”

In all, there were 233 women on the House general-election ballot in the midterms, including 71 who are incumbents. Forty-six of the candidates, including 33 Democrats and 13 Republicans, were running for open seats, while 112 were challenging incumbents.

At least 34 new Democratic women have been declared winners and are coming to the House in 2019, while one new Republican woman has secured victory.

By party, the new Congress will have a total of at least 105 Democratic women and 19 Republican women, with some female candidates’ races yet to be called, including that of Ms. Hyde-Smith.

According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, white men will make up 38% of the House Democrats in 2019 and 90% of House Republicans.

Female candidates were key to Democrats’ success in picking up the 23 Republican seats they needed to claim their House majority: of the 35 GOP-held districts that have been flipped to blue from red so far, 23 of them were won by women.

Once Democrats take control of the House next year, women are in line to chair four of the House’s 20 standing committees, including two that are among the House’s most influential panels. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York is slated to lead the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California is poised to take over the Financial Services Committee.

Some women sound a note of caution, citing the so-called “year of the woman” in 1992, a year after what many saw an unfair treatment by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee of Anita Hill, who alleged sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. That 1992 election doubled the number of women in the Senate to six, while the number of women in the House rose from 30 to 48, a number that has inched up but not grown by leaps and bounds in the generation since.

But the Trump era has galvanized women in politics, not just as candidates but as voters and donors, so far to the benefit of Democrats.

This Election Day produced the largest gender gap ever: Women made up 52% of the electorate nationwide and favored Democratic candidates over Republicans by an 18 point margin, 56% to 38%, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters before and during Election Day. Men favored Republicans by 3 points, 49% to 46%.

GOP strategists acknowledge the midterm House results were a poor showing for the party that poses a long-term political problem, especially in suburban districts.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said last week in a Fox News interview that Republicans have to “address the suburban women problem, because it’s real.”

The down-ballot roster of women was also expanded, as hundreds of women were elected to state legislatures. Those gains are considered important to building a bench of potential candidates for Congress in future years. This year, Emily’s List more than tripled the size of its staff focusing on recruiting and training state-level candidates.

At VoteRunLead, Ms. Vilardi says she is already hearing from women who want to run in 2019. Because that is an off-year with few state and federal elections, Ms. Vilardi said, the group is encouraging women to run for local offices such as the 19,000 school-board posts open across the country.