The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One election bright spot for Democrats: Women of color

The Congress that voters cobbled together Tuesday is a mixed bag on the diversity front: Women held more or less even in their representation (about 20 percent of Congress), which is not a representative ratio. But the women who did get elected are more diverse than ever.

Some results were still coming in as of late Wednesday, but it looked like the Senate will gain one new female senator and the House of Representatives will lose one female lawmaker. (The number of female governors will drop by one.)

The story of 2016 is a pickup here for women, a drop-off there. All told, an election featuring the first female major-party presidential candidate didn't have much of an impact on the number of women in politics.

“For all of the talk of this being a change election, it was not a change election for women in politics,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “We just aren't seeing enough of them.”

Tuesday did include some bright spots for women of color who ran for office. Come January, there will be a record number — 38 — women of color serving in Congress (35 Democrats, three Republicans).

Democrats elected three new women of color to the Senate — Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and Kamala Harris in California.

And several of these new members of Congress are notable firsts:

Cortez Masto (D), who won the open Nevada Senate seat, will be the nation's first Latina senator.

Lisa Blunt Rochester (D) will be the first African American woman to serve in Congress from Delaware. (She'll also be the first woman to serve in Congress from Delaware. For anyone counting, there are now just two states — Mississippi and Vermont — who have never sent a woman to Congress.)

By winning California's open Senate race, Harris (D) will be the first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate and just the second African American woman to serve in it.

Further down the ballot, one of House Democrats' biggest upsets came via a woman of color: Stephanie Murphy (D) will be the first Vietnamese-American female member of Congress after she knocked out 12-term GOP incumbent Rep. John L. Mica in Florida's 7th Congressional District.

In Nevada — a state that was a bright spot for Democrats at almost every level — Democrats put up an all-female ballot in a suburb of Las Vegas, right down to county commissioner.

And New Hampshire will once again be represented by an all-female congressional delegation. (Although with GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte's loss, Republican women take a hit, going from six to five female senators.)

There were more victories for women of color even further down the ballot. Via a Minnesota state legislative race, Democrats elected the first Somali American lawmaker, Ilhan Omar. And in Kentucky, voters elected Democrat Attica Scott, the state's first black female legislator in 20 years. Voters also elected 40 Native American Democrats in state legislative races across the country.

Indian American Pramila Jayapal (D) won an open congressional seat in Washington state. And Val Demings (D), the first African American woman to serve as police chief of Orlando, won her congressional race in Florida.

The victories were a bright spot for Democrats in an otherwise dark election.

"The women we just elected will bring their diverse perspectives and strong voices to Congress at a time when we've never needed them more," said Jessica O'Connell, executive director of Emily's List, which worked with many of the Democratic winners.

Republicans are about to reach the holy grail of governance

House Republicans didn't add any women of color to their congressional roster, but they managed to help reelect Rep. Mia Love in Utah, who in 2014 became the first black female Republican in Congress. And Republicans' most senior woman in the House is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), who in 1989 became the first Latina elected to Congress. Rep. Jaime Lynn Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) also won reelection.

Republicans have been making an effort at the state level to recruit and support more women of color, and on Tuesday they elected at least five new women of color across the country, including Affie Ellis who became the first Native American woman elected to the Wyoming Legislature.

A lot for women of color to celebrate. But when you zoom out, there's less for women to cheer about. Women are still vastly underrepresented in politics — as they have been for decades and will continue to be. In 2016, women make up half the U.S. population but just under 20 percent of Congress.

To win more races, women need to run more, Walsh said. Research shows women win at the same rate as men. And for whatever reason, 2016 didn't have a record number of women running. Those women who did run were doing so in a bad election for Democrats, which generally translates to a bad election for female politicians, more of whom are Democratic than Republican.

Women in politics must also consider the lasting effect of Hillary Clinton's loss. Walsh thinks it could discourage other women from jumping in on both sides of the aisle. Research shows women have to prove likability and qualifications more than men do.

“If Hillary Clinton could prevail, I thought it would send a message that she weathered all these attacks and got elected,” Walsh said. “And I thought we would have a president who would use her bully pulpit in part to talk about the importance of more women being engaged in the political process. ... But that's not what happened.”

Change is just moving too slowly to be cast as real change. As Walsh told The Fix back in June:

“If the goal is political parity, doing it in increments of five is going to take a very long time.”

In 2016, women didn't even make it that far. But the women who did win are more diverse than ever, so that's something.

Correction: This post originally misidentified the state that elected the first Somali-American lawmaker. Ilhan Omar was elected in Minnesota.