They’ve Only Just Begun

When the 116th Congress convened on Jan. 3, it looked different from any other in U.S. history. Because of the record number of women and minorities now in the legislature, many also expect this Congress to govern differently.
They’ve Only Just Begun

One-hundred-twenty-seven women are now serving in Congress. This includes 102 women in the U.S. House, breaking the previous record of 85 set in 2016, and 25 in the U.S. Senate, breaking the previous record of 23. The freshman class of women in the House is the largest ever. Of these 36 newcomers, 21 won open seats, and 15 defeated incumbents. The previous record for women in a freshman class was 24, set in 1992. Women now hold about 23 percent of all seats in Congress, a large jump from 19 percent in 2016, but still a long way from parity.

Quantity plus quality

The seismic changes of the 2018 midterms are being felt at the state level, too; 1,834 women won seats in November, bringing the nationwide total of women serving in state legislatures to 2,112. This is a 25.4 percent increase over the last cycle and the biggest jump in more than a decade.

A historic milestone was reached in Nevada in 2018. Women now hold 50.8 percent of the seats in the Nevada state legislature — the first time in U.S. history a state legislature has reached parity. Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, said, “There aren’t many examples of what happens in a legislature when there is gender parity. We [at CAWP] are always watching to see what difference that kind of leadership might make.” Before 2018, the only state legislative chamber ever to reach or surpass parity was the New Hampshire Senate in 2009-10, when 13 of 24 seats were held by women. Now, women make up more than 40 percent of state legislators in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

A record total of 43 women of color now occupy seats in the House. This includes 22 African-Americans, 12 Latinas, six Asian/Pacific Islanders, two Native Americans, and one Middle Eastern/North African. A record 14 women of color are also now serving in statewide elected executive offices. Of all 312 statewide executive offices in the United States, 4.5 percent are held by women of color. This is an increase over the previous record level of 3.5 percent of 317 offices. To put these recent strides in perspective, women of color make up almost 20 percent of the U.S. population.

“It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about what difference it will make to have these women in office,” said Walsh. “All of our research indicates that women do operate differently when they serve in public office. They tend to be more inclusive in their decision making — representing people who have not traditionally been at the table and developing bipartisan relationships. We also know they are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women, children, and families.”

“[Women] tend to be more inclusive in their decision making — representing people who have not traditionally been at the table and developing bipartisan relationships. We also know they are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women, children, and families.”

– Debbie Walsh, director, Center for American Women and Politics

Women’s life experiences shape their approach to policy, and their life experiences, in general, are different from men’s. However, women politicians are just as likely to take on “big” issues. Walsh recalled that when NAFTA was first being negotiated, a delegation of women from Congress went to Mexico to look at the conditions of workers — especially women workers — in factories along the border and to assess the impact of NAFTA on Mexico. “So, women tend to see policy through a different lens, concerned about its impact on different communities,” she said. A current example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York House District 14 and is tackling climate change, one of the biggest “big” issues. Immediately after she was elected, Ocasio-Cortez began to promote the Green New Deal, a comprehensive economic and environmental strategy to cut CO2 emissions and provide full employment in the United States by transitioning to a sustainable, green economy. The plan has been hailed as one with the potential to unite the Democratic Party.

What’s next on the agenda

A cross section of women who won their races — many of whom achieved “firsts” — are already doing things differently:

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, an industrial engineer, represents Pennsylvania’s 6th District in the House. She is one of the new STEM professionals in Congress whose candidacy was supported by 314 Action, an advocacy group dedicated to getting scientists, engineers, and technical professionals into public office so they can effect evidence-based policy. Houlahan has engineering degrees from Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served in the U.S. Air Force, and ran a sporting goods company. One of her priorities is to bring her diverse experience to bear on political problem-solving and to turn around the current administration’s hostility to science.

Sen. Jacky Rosen, one of Nevada’s two women senators, also supported by 314 Action, was a computer programmer and software developer. When she represented Nevada’s 3rd District, she was rated one of the House’s most bipartisan members. Rosen vowed, in her 2018 election-night acceptance speech, to “find common ground in the Senate with anyone who has an idea that will benefit Nevada.” Her time as a waitress working to finance her college education motivates her to fight for a $15 minimum wage in Nevada.

Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico District 1, is one of the two first Native American women ever elected to Congress. An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo people, she welcomes the opportunity to represent Native Americans who have never had a voice in national politics. Having seen firsthand the effects of worsening heat and drought on residents of the Southwest, Haaland is putting climate justice, renewable energy, and national public health insurance at the top of her legislative agenda.

Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse, was appointed by President Obama as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she helped communities respond to public health emergencies. She is the first African-American woman to represent the 14th Congressional District of Illinois, and the youngest African-American woman ever elected to Congress. She sees herself as part of a new “millennial caucus” ready to take on leadership roles on important committees. Saying that student loan debt is holding her generation back, she will make modernizing the federal financial aid system a top priority.

Kimberly Yee, who is Chinese American, won her race for Arizona state treasurer in November 2018 and is the first Republican woman of color to serve in a statewide office in Arizona. In 2010, she was the first Asian-American to win a seat in the Arizona legislature. A fiscal and social conservative, Yee’s concern for education prompts her to lead an effort to promote financial literacy for both children and adults.

Janet Mills is the first woman to be elected governor of Maine. She served as the state attorney general for five years and was also the first woman to hold that office. As Maine attorney general, Mills foiled attempts by then-governor Paul LePage to deny health care coverage to young adults. She intends to implement Medicaid expansion for Maine (a provision of the Affordable Care Act), which LePage refused to do.

Everybody run!

Democratic women holding elected office outnumber Republican women in office, and far fewer Republican than Democratic women ran in the 2018 midterms. Of the 2019 freshman class of 37 Republicans, only one is a woman. The reasons for this are both structural and ideological. While many programs that prepare women to run for office are nonpartisan, the system for getting women into office is more developed for Democrats. There are some political action committees for Republican women candidates, but nothing like EMILY’s List, which has been a game changer for Democratic women. “Also, the Republican party rejects the idea of identity politics,” said Walsh. “Our research shows that it matters to have women in office because they can represent the interests of people differently, but the Republicans do not embrace this approach.” Until more Republican women run for office and win, gender parity in American politics will remain out of reach. Walsh stressed that women should run for office whenever a seat is open, so they are positioned and prepared when an opportunity comes along. She is convinced that the momentum that propelled women into office in 2018 will continue. “People can get upset, and then lose interest, but the interest didn’t go away. That’s what makes this feel like a movement, not a moment.”

Women in politics walk a gender identity tightrope

In mid-November 2018, an incident in the Ohio state legislature caused enough of a stir to be reported in The New York Times. Stephanie Howse, an African-American Democrat representing Ohio District 11, was speaking against HB 228, a “stand your ground” gun bill, contending it would harm the residents of her largely urban district. Howse challenged the supporters of the bill, who represent mostly white, rural, and suburban districts, to consider the impact of HB 228 on minorities in northeast Ohio. Midway through Howse’s remarks, House Speaker Ryan Smith gaveled Howse to silence. When she continued to speak, Smith switched off her microphone and ended the debate. Howse asserts she was simply advocating for her constituents. Smith, a white Republican who represents Ohio District 93, in southwestern Ohio, said Howse was insulting her colleagues.

Nichole Bauer, Ph.D., assistant professor of political communications in the political science department and the Manship School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University, read about the incident and said it was not unusual: “The incident in the Ohio state legislature is on my list of many, many examples of how my research plays out in the real world.” Dr. Bauer is an expert on political psychology and gender politics. Her research encompasses news media, campaign strategies, and political institutions, as well as theories and methods from psychology, public opinion, and mass communication.

Noting that Howse and Smith are on opposite sides of many divides — gender, race, party, region, and power — Dr. Bauer contends that Smith silenced Howse because her remarks and her very presence on the floor of the Statehouse were “a slap to male power.” She said, “This is how we respond to women when they’re in counter-stereotypic roles, doing things we don’t expect of women, which is what that state legislator was doing. She was performing her role as a lawmaker. This illustrates that women have a much narrower circle of behavior they can operate in than men. When women deviate a little bit from what’s acceptable, men feel really, really threatened, and the speaker of the house felt she was infringing on his powers.”

Dr. Bauer compared this pushback to the now-infamous February 2017 incident in the U.S. Senate, when Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in opposition to the nomination of then-senator from Alabama Jeff Sessions for U.S. attorney general, began to read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King about Sen. Sessions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to silence Warren, who objected. She was told to take her seat, and McConnell then uttered the phrase that became the rallying cry of women nationwide: “ … nevertheless, she persisted.”

It gets trickier

Dr. Bauer’s research reveals that it doesn’t work for women candidates to massage gender stereotypes, either. In a study described in “Emotional, Sensitive, and Unfit for Office? Gender Stereotype Activation and Support for Female Candidates,” Dr. Bauer tested the assumption that voters automatically rely on gender stereotypes when evaluating female candidates. She said, “My research found that when women play on ideas that reflect conventional stereotypes of women, voters are less likely to support them because they don’t see women as fitting into masculine, leadership roles.”

It’s difficult to avoid the trap of feminine rhetoric because the media likes to talk about women political candidates as mothers — even if the candidates never mention it themselves. But, women are becoming savvy campaigners and are learning to use their female identity in a more nuanced way. For example, it’s more effective to air an ad that talks about being forced out of the military because of combat restrictions on women than to highlight personal breastfeeding practices. “A message about unfair restrictions resonates more with voters than just reminding them you are a mother. Women’s exclusion from masculine institutions is problematic. It’s unjust,” said Dr. Bauer, pointing out that voters recognize an unjust situation and can be galvanized by it.

Crosscurrents and contradictions

However, in spite of historic levels of political engagement by women, since 2016, voter bias against women candidates persists. Voters see institutions that exclude women as being unfair, but this belief doesn’t necessarily influence how they evaluate individual female candidates. Voters tend to compartmentalize things, and making the kinds of conceptual leaps required to overcome bias is difficult. Dr. Bauer explained, “If you talk to voters about health care policy, for example, and point out that a bunch of men just made a decision about their health care, and then ask, ‘Do you want to vote for a woman?’ they will still exhibit subtle biases.” Dr. Bauer concluded, “This balancing act of avoiding feminine qualities and being more masculine applies to women in any masculine institution — academe, journalism, finance, and science and engineering. This is a tightrope women everywhere have to walk.

*Featured image courtesy of the New York Times