Year of the Woman - Back to the Future in 2018?

Will the 2018 midterm elections mark another “Year of the Woman,” like 1992? There are similarities to that historic year, but there are also significant differences.
Year of the Woman - Back to the Future in 2018?

This article is from SWE Magazine’s 2018 Spring issue. You can access the issue on your mobile device by downloading our app on iTunes or Google Play. Click here to view on a desktop or laptop.

By Meredith Holmes, SWE Magazine Contributor

The surge in women running for office in 2018 has been making headlines for more than a year. Women started thinking about entering poli- tics shortly after the 2016 election. They got serious around the time of the first Women’s March, in January 2017, attending conferences and political training programs in record numbers. Now, they are filing and announcing their candidacies for office at the U.S. congressional level and for state executive offices, such as governor and lieutenant governor, as well as for other statewide elected offices and seats in state legislatures.

At the time of this writing, including both potential candidates and those who have filed, there will be 50 women running for U.S. Senate seats (29 Democrats and 21 Republicans) and 431 women running for U.S. House seats (339 Democrats and 92 Republicans). The nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a leading source of research and current data about the participation of American women in politics, monitors filings and tracks numbers for political races nationwide. Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, and a CAWP scholar, said, “... once the filings are in place, we expect the number of women running will surpass records of filed candidates for each of these levels of office.”

She also pointed out, “These numbers alone don’t mean we will have another ‘Year of the Woman’ in terms of outcomes, the way we did in 1992.” The 1992 surge in women running for office resulted in wins that doubled the number of women serving in Congress. “Of course, we were starting with a smaller number, so it was a bit easier to double,” Dr. Dittmar said. Before the 1992 elections, there was a total of 50 women in Congress (three in the Senate and 47 in the House). Currently, that total is 106. It’s highly unlikely it will increase to 212 in November 2018.

Also, women are running against one another in some districts, so there will be fewer women candidates after the primaries. Nevertheless, Dr. Dittmar contends that 2018 will be a good year for women to run and win.

Open Seats Open Doors

Open seats (with no incumbent running) are the most winnable for women candidates; typically, incumbents win 90 percent of the time. In 1992, there were 73 open seats (eight in the Senate and 65 in the House). There are usually more open seats after new districts are drawn following the once-every-decade U.S. census. Although there are fewer open seats this year — 53 (three in the Senate and 50 in the House) — they still represent an opportunity for female candidates. As of Feb. 12, 2018, women were likely or filed candidates in 49 of the 53 open-seat races.

But the women eyeing political office this year are not afraid of a fight. Dr. Dittmar said, “When we started this election cycle, and we began to see the energy and enthusiasm among women translating into candidacies, we were heartened by that enthusiasm, but also cautious, because almost all of the increase in the women running — for example, for the U.S. House — can be accounted for among Democratic women running as challengers to incumbents. Those are tough races to win.” In 1992, 51 percent of the women running were challengers, while as of January 2018, 59 percent of potential or filed women candidates were challengers.

However, outcomes of the 2017 elections in Virginia and Alabama defied expectations about incumbents and challengers. Ten women (30 percent of the Democratic women challengers) won seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in that election. “If the races in Virginia and Alabama were any indication of the context in which Democratic challengers will be running nationwide,” said Dr. Dittmar, “then there is reason to be slightly more hopeful that some of these women challengers will be successful, both in their nominations and on election day.”

The More Things Change...

In 1991, millions watched the televised Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and what they saw was an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee grilling Anita Hill, J.D., a young, African-American law professor, about sexual harassment from her former boss, Thomas. The callous, dismissive, and clueless way that Hill and her testimony were treated angered many women and was a big factor in the surge of women running and winning the following year. Hill, now a legal scholar and a professor at Brandeis University, said in a November 2017 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, “We have made progress, but unfortunately, 26 years ago, Washington wasn’t ready to lead on this issue. And I’m afraid, even today, Washington cannot lead the country on this issue.”

In the fall of 2017, women began speaking out publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment in the film and entertainment industry. This emboldened other women in a wide variety of workplace situations, including the news media, Capitol Hill, Silicon Valley, the gaming industry, and women’s gymnastics, to speak out and gave rise to the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp, both of which support and serve as advocates for women who have been sexually assaulted and harassed. This time around, women named their harassers — not to a small, elite group of decision-makers, but to the press, the public, and to other women, worldwide. Some men have lost their jobs, and many women have channeled their anger into running for office.

Dr. Dittmar pointed out, “Since women are the likely victims of this type of abuse, there is
an empowering element of this reckoning that can motivate women to raise their own voice in whatever way they see fit, and for some this might be raising their voice as a candidate for office.”


– Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, Rutgers University-Camden

In 2018, as in 1992, there is a strong link between women’s anger about sexual harassment, or as Hill characterized it in a Nov. 22, 2017, Washington Post interview, “sexual misconduct in the workplace,” and women engaging in politics. Dr. Dittmar said, “Women have credibility on this issue, and it is and will be a salient issue in the fall elections, I am sure.” She added, “I think women candidates might be able to leverage this moment to say they come to this issue, if not with personal experience, then with heightened awareness and a passion to address gender power imbalances.”

The engagement of women in this election cycle is also a response to a range of other concerns. Interviews with individual women, as well as polls, show that many are motivated to act not only by Donald Trump’s 2016 win, but also by the policies he and his administration have embraced in the past year. Dr. Dittmar contends that women are pushing back not only on traditional “women’s issues,” but on threats to issues they have been active on in their communities for a long time, including immigration, health care, criminal justice reform, and the environment. She observed, “I think what’s different in 2017 and 2018 than in previous cycles among women is that they are translating their energy and activism — and for some, a particular sense of urgency — into running for office. They have marched and advocated in the past, but now they see the value of having their voices at the table in institutions where they can hold the line on policy issues.”

Putting It in Context

The increase in women candidates in this election cycle is almost entirely among Democrats. In part, this is to be expected; the midterm elections are typically difficult for the party of the president, and races in many districts are extremely competitive. However, as Dr. Dittmar said, “In order to achieve gender parity in government in the long run, we’re going to need more Republican women to run and win.”

In addition, there is a big blue wave as well as a pink one. Both men and women are running for office in greater numbers than in 2016, but women are still only 23 percent of all potential congressional candidates. This is an improvement over about 19 percent in 2016, but far from parity based on the number of women in the U.S. population, which would be 52 percent. As Dr. Dittmar wrote in her January 2018 article, “‘Pink Wave’: A Note of Caution”: “It’s only when women’s rise in candidacies significantly outpaces men’s that women will move closer to gender parity among potential congressional contenders.”

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