There's a Historic Number of Women Running for Congress

While Hillary Clinton's candidacy at the top of the ticket is making history, political experts say we should be looking down the ballot as well.
November 7, 2016, 8:28pm
Photo by kidTruant via Flickr

This election, a record-breaking 167 women are running for seats in the US House of Representatives, passing the previous record of 166. There are currently 20 women in the Senate, though Barbara Boxer of California and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland are retiring this year. Sixteen women are running for Senate seats on November 8.

"We expect that there could be anywhere between 19 and 23 women serving [in the Senate] after the election," says Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

The likelihood of Congress reaching a historical record in female representation on Tuesday is high. Dependent on the outcomes of some close races, Walsh says we could see 89 women in the House (there are currently 84).

The combined projected election results for both the House and Senate show good prospects for women to finally constitute more than 20 percent of Congress. This is particularly important because "the number of women in politics in the United States has stagnated," says Amanda Clayton, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

Read more: Three Generations of Women Protesting Trump

At the same time, passing the 20 percent threshold is still far having equal representation. "What we know about this election cycle is that history is being made at the top of the ticket. Not so much down the ballot," Walsh says.

Walsh also points out that there is not a record number of women running for Senate, warning that while we could reach a historic number of 23 women, we could also lose female senators just as easily. "It's so far from political parity that it would be overstating the nature of a record. What we're really looking at here is very slow progress," said Walsh.

What we know about this election cycle is that history is being made at the top of the ticket. Not so much down the ballot.

Walsh explains that after this election, Republicans and Democrats alike will need to make equal representation a priority. "Gatekeepers [of the parties] play a huge role in who runs and who doesn't. The folks who groom possible candidates need to be more inclusive," says Walsh. "That would change the landscape because we know that when women run, they win at the same rate that men do."

At the same time, Walsh believes that just the fact that Hillary Clinton was nominated is a major breakthrough for women in American politics.

Clayton agrees, explaining how a possible Clinton presidency could have reverberating effects on the future generation of women in political leadership. "There's a lot of research that shows that when women are younger and see female role models in office, they're more likely to run themselves," says Clayton. "With Hillary Clinton [in office], we might see more women running for state and local politics."

"Hopefully it becomes this virtuous cycle where more women run, more women succeed and then more women are encouraged to run," she continues.

At the same time, Clayton says Trump's turbulent and misogynist campaign could also result in increased representation for women in politics generally. Clayton believes women's reactions to this year's election closely resembles the reaction to the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Senate confirmation in which Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court despite Hill's sexual harassment claims. "There was an all male Senate committee and they just didn't understand what sexual harassment was," explains Clayton. "There was a reaction that things need to change as this is what happens when women aren't represented in the Senate."

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The media reaction to the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court appointment was termed "The Year of the Woman," with more women running for and winning seats that year in Congress than ever before, according to Clayton. "If anything, I would hope that [Trump] would solidify women's resolve."