But with those gains have come plenty of swings, and the picture of the past decade has largely been one of stagnation, according to data gathered by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP):
Why is this important?
In large part, it's because state legislatures are feeder pools for higher office. Joni Ernst, Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte all come from their state legislatures, as do many congressional candidates. And if things stall out there, then the pool of women who would run for Senate, governor and the U.S. House stagnates as well. I reached out to CAWP's Kelly Dittmar to get her take about the 2014 trends -- not only in state legislatures, but also Congress.
FIX: What will we see in terms of women running in state legislatures this year?
DITTMAR: This cycle we don’t have a record number of women running, and the number isn't changing enough to change the overall trend of women in office. If the number of women candidates doesn't change at a significant pace, neither will women in office.
FIX: What if we look at the overall picture, including Congress and governor's races?
DITTMAR: The story is split. While we will celebrate some women making history who will break different glass ceilings -- for example, maybe Joni Ernst and likely Shelley Moore Capito among others-- what is less heartening is that we don’t expect that the numbers will increase in any significant way. At the Senate level, perhaps two or three new women senators will win, but there are also two vulnerable ones. In the House, we will celebrate a bigger class of women of color, but the total number of women won’t go up. On the gubernatorial level, there are five women governors today, and one termed out (Arizona Republican Jan Brewer), and we have to see if we get up to six with Gina Raimondo (D-R.I.) and potentially Mary Burke (D-Wis.). We thought it was going to be a great year of opportunity because there are so many races, but what we saw was that we didn't have as many women candidates run or get through primaries. Every year there is drumbeat to say if it's another year of the women, and it’s just not.
FIX: Run the numbers on women reaching 20 percent in Congress, which would be a little milestone.
DITTMAR: We are at 18.5 percent women in Congress currently (99/535) (20 percent in the Senate, and 18.2 percent in House, not including the delegates). To get to 20 percent (without rounding up), we'd have to reach 107 women across the two chambers (107/535). So we have to net eight women across both chambers to make it there. That seems doable based on the numbers, but it's not a slam dunk because, again, women are in some of the most competitive contests. Even where we have very likely new women like in the House, we also have some vulnerable incumbent women that we are watching out for. Moreover, it's significant in the House that we have six women not returning due to retirements or running for other offices. So even those six very solid newcomers bring us back to status quo.
FIX: But what about the overall climate and culture of women running for office. What trends have you seen in 2014?
DITTMAR: With the Harkin stuff and some of the other things you might deem sexist, we are reminded that the more things change the more they stay the same. But in a positive sense, we have seen women run in different ways. Joni Ernst shows not all women are the same, and that’s good. We don’t want women to assume that just because you are a woman you represent all women. She has campaigned in a different way.
We have seen women pushing the boundaries about how vocal they are about pushing back against sexist comments. It’s more effective to do that, and to respond to it. You see women like Alison Lundergan Grimes talking about running as a woman candidate.
And I think women like Gina Raimondo, a mom of young kids who were front and center in her campaign, has changed perceptions. She wasn’t trying to hide them. She used her motherhood as a credential to be a good governor, and that changes the game and provides different versions of what it means to be a woman running for office.