By our tally, 225 women — 145 Democrats and 80 Republicans — have filed to run for the House of Representatives this election cycle, although 12lost their primaries. Seventy more are considered candidates in states where filing is still ahead.
That means we’re on track to beat the previous record of 262 female House candidates set in 2010. And as we wait to see how many women will be on the ballots in the fall elections, we’re also watching for signs that more may be ready to seek office in 2013, 2014 and beyond.
If we’re lucky, 2012 will follow the template set in 1992, a political year similar to this one in many respects. And ideally we won’t see a repeat of the years following 1992, when women’s advances in elected office slowed, then began to level off and even decline. In 2012, women hold 90 seats in Congress, just less than 17 percent, the same number as in 2009. And in the state legislatures, women hold 23.7 percent of seats, down from the peak of 24.5 percent in 2010 and equal to the proportion in 2008.
Like 2012, 1992 was a post-census year, which means that reapportionment and redistricting had created a large number of new or open seats. It was also a presidential election year, when interest in electoral politics increases. Most important, though, it was a year when women realized that their power was limited at the highest levels of government.
That wake-up call had blared when the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and a University of Oklahoma law professor, Anita Hill, appeared reluctantly to testify about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced while working for Thomas. Suddenly, women across the country saw two plain facts on the evening news: The harassment many had experienced was not just an embarrassing personal incident, but a real and serious phenomenon with a name. And the senators hearing testimony about it were all men who didn’t get it.
Those realizations sparked the candidacies that made 1992 the “Year of the Woman.” Women were well positioned in lower-level offices or other visible roles, and after the Thomas-Hill hearings in October 1991, they had adequate time to line up resources and file to run. That year saw the greatest gains to date for women in elective office, with record numbers of candidates and winners at the congressional and state legislative levels.
While women have not been slumbering since 1992, their advances since then have been far smaller. Recent proposals attacking women’s rights — including challenges to contraception coverage, long assumed to be a settled matter — have provided a harsh reminder that female perspectives are still too rare in policymaking circles.