Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

The sorry state of female representation in Congress just got slightly better thanks to Tina Smith

January 3, 2018 at 11:01 AM

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Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) are sworn into the Senate on Jan. 3, shrinking the GOP majority. (Reuters)

Here's a pathetic statistic for you: By the end of the day Wednesday, the number of women serving in the Senate at once will hit a record high of 22. Out of 100 seats.

Put another way, slightly more than a fifth of U.S. senators are women; four-fifths are men. This record is hardly a representative ratio, and it underscores women are still a long way from equal representation in Congress.

Tina Smith is the reason there are more Senate women serving now than there ever have been. The former lieutenant governor of Minnesota was nominated to replace Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations.

She is getting sworn in Wednesday and will be Minnesota's junior senator, making Minnesota the fourth state to have all-female senators. She could stay Minnesota's junior senator if she wins an election in November for the seat.

Women have made incremental gains in Congress over the past decade, but they seem to have plateaued at 20 percent at all levels of government, according to data gathered by the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University:

"Women are kinda eeking up, one at a time," said Debbie Walsh, director of the center.

The irony is, when women run, they tend to win at the same rate as men. That's impressive, given women have to overcome tricky gender dynamics: Research consistently shows women need to come across as likable to get voters to choose them, whereas male candidates do not.

Related: [Why can't women just be themselves when they run for office?]

Experts say the real problem is there just are not enough women running for office. The 2016 election was historic for one woman at the very top getting her party's nomination, but female representation in Congress stayed at around 20 percent.

“For all of the talk of this being a change election, it was not a change election for women in politics,” Walsh told The Fix after the election. “We just aren't seeing enough of them.”

That could change in a big way in 2018. A record number of women are running for office at all levels of government next year. The numbers, tallied by the Center for American Women and Politics, are astounding.

Since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, nonpartisan and partisan advocates say women are getting involved in politics in a way the United States hasn't seen since the feminism movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Progressive political groups such as Emily's List say more than 20,000 women have reached out to them to inquire about help running for office. Nonpartisan political training camps for female candidates are filled to the max.

Related: [Don't look now, but this might be an excellent time for women to run for office]

Will all these women win and in one election equalize the gender balance of power in politics? No, of course not. So far in the era of President Trump and #MeToo, a sizable number of women who run are winning. In Virginia's state elections in November, a record number ran. And 11 Democratic women knocked out men, boosting the number of women in the 100-member state House by nearly 60 percent.

"2018 is shaping up as a political climate ripe for women's political advancement,” said Kelly Dittmar, an expert in women in politics at Rutgers University.

Much of this activism is taking place on the left. Indeed, a female political candidate is much more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican. The majority of new female candidates running for governor's mansions and Congress are Democrats, as this chart by liberal blog Daily Kos illustrates:

Republicans are trying to capitalize on this moment, too. GOP donors are launching groups to help more women get elected as a counterweight to Democratic groups that have existed for decades.

That's partly out of necessity. There are only 26 Republican women in Congress, and Roll Call calculates nearly a quarter of House Republican women aren't coming back next term.

In the Senate, Republican women are setting themselves up to increase their numbers from the five GOP female senators serving now.

In Arizona to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R), three women are running or preparing to run (Rep. Martha McSally (R), Kelli Ward (R) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D)). In Tennessee to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) is a front-runner.

In a sentence, things right now for women in politics are: meh, but could soon get much better.

Correction: This post originally referred to Rutgers' Center for American Woman and Politics as the Center for American Woman in Politics. 

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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