Women made history on Tuesday night, winning more seats in Congress than ever before.
By press time, at least 92 had won in the House and 10 had won in the Senate (joining 10 already in the upper chamber) for a total of 112 women — the most women to serve in Congress at once in history. (The previous record was 107.)
Women also hit a series of significant milestones. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids are the first Native American women elected to Congress. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first Muslim women set to represent their states in the House. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer are due to be the youngest women to serve as lawmakers.
Women mobilized in opposition to President Donald Trump immediately after his election, leading the largest public demonstration in American history the day after his inauguration. They then built the largest sustained resistance in generations. A record number of women entered Democratic primaries and ran for state and local office, and went on to outperform their male colleagues in races nationwide.
Women didn’t just contribute to the blue wave; they fueled it.
More women in Congress isn’t just a symbolic victory
There are a lot of reasons to elect more women to Congress — including simply that equal representation in government is vital to ensure that the broader country is fairly represented.
Study after study has found that women raise more policies related to women’s health and issues like family leave compared to their male counterparts. As Georgetown University’s Michele Swers found in research examining Congress in the 1990s, liberal female legislators co-sponsored 10.6 bills related to women’s health, on average, which amounted to 5.3 more bills than liberal male legislators.
“We can’t predict X, Y, Z policy will pass, but we can safely say that there will be issues brought to the table that have otherwise not been there,” says Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for Women in Politics. “Having more diverse perspectives among the women in office will ensure that more women in the electorate are better represented.”
Plus, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has reported, women in Congress have a track record of getting more done. A study from UC Berkeley’s Sarah Anzia and University of Chicago’s Christopher Berry found that female legislators were able to bring back $49 million more for their districts on an annual basis, compared to male legislators.
These outcomes could be a byproduct of how women and men approach running for office in the first place, says Dittmar. When asked why they are pursuing an elected position, women were more likely to identify a policy they really care about, she notes, while men were more likely to say it was because they wanted to be an elected official.
More women running for office and winning these seats is likely to impact how people perceive women becoming candidates in the future. “As more women run, more women get interested in politics and think it’s a plausible path for them,” says Notre Dame political science professor Christina Wolbrecht.
“That’s one of the most valuable outcomes of this year even beyond the numbers,” says Dittmar. A study from political analytics expert Amelia Showalter previously found that when more women are elected to statewide offices like governor, senator, and attorney general, the number of women in the state legislature saw significant increases down the line.
This record number of women elected could have a similar multiplier effect — changing what people envision when they think of what political candidates and leaders should look and sound like.
“We’ve pushed voters to think,” says Dittmar. “I don’t see the conversation we’re having nationally about gender and power dying down after this election.”
What made this the year for women to break barriers
While women will still be outnumbered in Congress, there’s no question that there was a substantial wave — especially on the Democratic side. Emily’s List, a Democratic group that helps fundraise for and support women candidates who support abortion rights, saw outreach from more than 42,000 women this cycle. In 2016, the organization heard from just 920 women.
This sizable increase comes from, first and foremost, pushback against Trump, experts say. Much like in 1992, the other renowned “Year of the Woman,” women are broadly fed up with pervasive abuses of power — including Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, comments that were captured by the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
“Since the election of 2016, we’ve seen an explosion of awareness of how entrenched male privilege and power has been,” says the University of Kentucky’s Susan Bordo. “Partly, that’s been the result of having elected a president whose misogyny is so blatant.”
“That election was a real slap in the face to a lot of us,” Mikie Sherrill, the Congress member-elect for New Jersey’s 11th House District, told Bloomberg.
In addition to a groundswell of enthusiasm and outrage this year, there’s also been a slow but steady establishment of infrastructure to promote women candidates.
“One explanation for why we’re seeing growth continue on the Democratic side is that Democrats have Emily’s List and it is a major source of strength for Democratic women,” says UC Berkeley’s Anzia. “There are similar organizations on the Republican side but nowhere near the reach of Emily’s List.”
As Roll Call reported, Emily’s List is on track to spend $37 million on roughly 30 House races during the 2018 cycle. In addition to bolstering candidates’ campaign coffers, the organization is involved in recruitment and training of women.
“Two things are going on this year,” says Boston University political science professor Virginia Sapiro. “More Democratic women are energized because of the anti-woman stance of the current administration, and there is a growth of organizations devoted to recruiting and training Democratic women candidates.”
On top of these two trends, there’s been a growing bench of women candidates who are coming up through various state legislatures. According to Rutgers’s Center for American Women and Politics, the number of women in state legislatures has grown fivefold since the 1970s. These government bodies often serve as a feeder for other statewide offices and congressional roles.
Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn both served in their respective state legislatures, for example, before ascending to congressional seats and launching bids for the Senate.
Trump helped women redefine “qualified”
Voters are also reevaluating the kind of experience it takes to pursue elected office. A huge contribution to this year’s wave of women has been a notable increase in first-time candidates.
“With the rise of Donald Trump, people are rethinking their assumption about what previous experience you need to be successful in politics,” Notre Dame’s Wolbrecht says. Women have also long been viewed as “outsiders” in politics, she notes. It’s a perception that could be advantageous in a year when people are fed up with “politics as usual.”
Historically, “women are less politically ambitious — they are less likely to think of running for office, they are less likely to want to, they are less likely to think they are qualified,” says Anzia.
She emphasizes that women’s interest in running, or lack thereof, is a key piece of the current dynamic that needs to be examined, but adds that there’s also much to be learned about how the electorate treats and perceives women candidates. “We need to better understand the role of voters,” she says.
Her research has found that female candidates are more qualified, on average, than male candidates. While this pattern could be a result of women feeling like they need to be more qualified in order to run for office, it could also mean that the electorate would only consider and advance a woman if she were more qualified compared to her male counterparts, she says.
The barriers to women’s decisions to run are backed up by research from the University of Virginia’s Jennifer Lawless and Loyola Marymount’s Richard Fox; women tend to be more risk-averse and may be less inclined to run given negative perceptions of how other women politicians are treated.
But now, with such an array of diverse women making it into office, that old calculation could start to change.
The United States is still far behind other developed countries in women’s representation
The United States made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.
As Soo Oh and Sarah Kliff reported for Vox last year: “In the past two decades, the US has sunk from 52nd in the world for women’s representation to 104th today, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In the past year alone, the US has dropped nine places — from 95th to 104th — among more than 190 countries.”
A 2015 Pew report offered similarly dismal findings. Pew’s survey determined that the US ranked 33rd among a list of 49 high-income countries, trailing Sweden and South Africa in the proportion of women who make up the national legislature.
A number of other countries around the world have outpaced the US due to national policies, including quota systems, to actively promote women in government roles, Oh and Kliff write.
Take, for example, Bolivia. Twenty years ago, it ranked 98th for women’s representation, and as recently as 2008, only 16.9 percent of its representatives were women. But in 2009, the country passed a constitutional amendment requiring equal gender representation in government. The Bolivian legislature is now 53.1 percent women and ranks second in the world.
Without such programs, America has continued to inch toward congressional parity at its own glacial pace. “It is time for America to rethink our tactics on electing more women and to reconsider structural reforms, such as quotas, that make such a difference in the rest of the world,” writes activist Susannah Wellford in an op-ed for US News.
Absent such changes, the same kinds of barriers that reaffirm the status quo will persist — even with the influx of women in Congress. “Women were still less than 25 percent of candidates this cycle,” says Dittmar. “Even with an increase, women are still confronting many of the constraints they face in society.”
“I have no expectation in my lifetime that women will be 50 percent of the legislature. I just don’t,” says Wolbrecht.
It’s up to women in future election cycles to prove this expectation wrong.