Kathleen Williams had a ritual for getting through a tough day back when she staffed the Montana Legislature: She’d go visit Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Well, not really. Since Rankin was elected to Congress in 1916 (and died in 1973), she’s not exactly around for a chat. Instead, Williams and a colleague would head to Rankin’s statue at the Montana state Capitol. “Sometimes, we’d go up and we’d just sit with Jeanette’s statute,” Williams explained. “And it somehow had a calming effect.”
Now, Williams is trying to make her own kind of history: She’s running to take over Montana’s single at-large U.S. House district and become the state’s only female representative in Congress. Despite Montana’s “legacy of strong women,” as Williams calls it, it’s now one of 11 states in the country with zero female members of Congress. That’s more than a fifth of the United States.
Twenty-three women remain in the running to break those all-male delegations this year, according to a VICE News review of data from the Center for American Women and Politics. VICE News reached out to all for interviews and spoke with 14. While most said that their state’s lack of female congressional lawmakers had little to do with their decision to run, the women agreed that they still couldn’t escape the issue of gender — and the dearth of female politicians — in their race. And some don’t necessarily want to.
“It wasn’t until I started the race when people were like, ‘Hey, no Democratic woman has ever won in Kentucky for federal office,’” explained Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot and current Democratic nominee for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. But she said her message to voters is not “‘Hey, I’m a woman; put me in the cockpit.’ That’s not who I am. But I think it’s important to have a voice. It’s important to have role models. It’s important to have leaders who look like the country.”
Of the 11 states with no women in Congress, a majority of them — Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and South Carolina — are reliably conservative. That red tint may help explain why their congressional delegations have no women: Not only are women more likely to be Democrats, but Republicans simply place less emphasis on candidates’ identities than Democrats do. Eighty percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters told told the Pew Research Center that they thought having more women run for office is “a good thing,” while less than half of their Republican counterparts agreed.
“Republicans overall reject this idea of identity politics,” said Malliga Och, an Idaho State University assistant professor who’s studied conservative female politicians. “It’s really about conservative credentials, whether it is family values, limited government, strong on defense. That is more important than the personal characteristics of that representative.”
Of the 14 women still in the running for office that VICE News interviewed, 13 were Democrats; only one Republican responded to VICE News’ interview request. Then again, only five of the 23 women running are Republicans. (The vast majority of all women running this year are Democrats.)
“It’s come up, but it’s not something I’m bringing up,” Pearl Kim, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s 5th District, told VICE News. “But it has come up when I’m talking to individuals — ‘We’ll finally be represented by a woman’ — and their excitement about that. But it’s not something I lead with. I like to lead with my accomplishments.”
The lack of female representation does cross party lines. Vermont, one of the nation’s most liberal states, is the only one to have never sent a woman to Congress. The male incumbents in Vermont’s three-person delegation have been in office for decades, and no Vermont women mounted credible campaigns for Congress this year. “A woman’s not gonna beat Bernie Sanders in Vermont,” as Jason Windett, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte political science professor, put it.
Until this year, with its historic number of women running for office, voters may have felt that they didn’t even have a qualified female candidate to vote for. Women are not only far less likely than men to think about running for office but also less likely to be recruited to do so, a 2017 survey by Politico, American University, and Loyola Marymount University found. When asked why Kentucky has no female representatives, that’s McGrath’s explanation: “We win at the same rates of men. We just typically don’t run at the same rate.”
Once they’ve embarked on the campaign trail, women also face a number of obstacles that men, whose gender remains the default setting in politics, rarely have to confront. When women avoid mentioning their gender, they risk being unable to talk about their personal experience grappling with so-called “women’s issues” — like healthcare and equal pay — or about why they may bring a different kind of background to Congress (71 percent of which is white men, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign). Then again, when a female candidate references her gender too much, she risks being denounced as asking for support simply because she’s a woman.
“I get accused a lot of identity politics, because I do talk about the fact that I’m a working mom and a mother,” said Amanda Douglas, a Democrat who lost her primary runoff for Oklahoma’s 1st District last week. “But I think identity plays a huge role in who a person is, and the legislation they’re going to try and pass, and the priorities they’re going to have in office.”
“A lot of times that’s what the perception is: If you mention the fact that you are a woman, then immediately some people shut down and that’s all they hear,” she added.
Some candidates do find small, oblique ways to lean in to their gender while on the campaign trail. Hayden Shamel, the Democratic nominee for Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District, said she rarely talks about being a woman on the campaign trail, but she does make sure that her photo is on her campaign signs and that her middle name — ”Catherine” — appears on the ballot. That way, voters can’t mistake her for a man, despite her gender-neutral name.
“It makes me stand out in a lot of ways, the fact that I am a female running for federal office,” Shamel said. “I don’t think I’m running a campaign any different than a man would.”
Every single female candidate VICE News spoke with was adamant that they were not relying on their gender for votes. “It’s not that, ‘Oh, we have no women in Congress. You should vote for me because I’m a woman.’ That’s clearly not my messaging,” said Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild, the Democratic nominee for the 7th Congressional District. "Nor do I think that would be appropriate messaging for anybody.”
With 20 members, Pennsylvania has the largest all-male congressional delegation. The state is also guaranteed to send at least one woman to Congress this year, since some of the races involve only women. In fact, Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon, who’s running against Kim for Pennsylvania’s 5th District, said one of her male primary rivals was asked in a debate why anyone should vote for him “when there were well-qualified women on the ballot,” as Scanlon recalled.
South Carolina is also likely to send Republican Katie Arrington to Congress to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District, following her victory over the district’s current Rep. Mark Sanford in the primaries. (Arrington’s male Democratic opponent is unlikely to win in the conservative state.)
Candidates said that voters’ hunger for female candidates can be palpable. Just as every candidate made clear they weren’t running on their gender, they all also said that both male and female voters brought up their excitement about voting for a woman. Democrat Kendra Horn, in Oklahoma’s 5th District, said her female Republican neighbor told her, “‘Put as many signs in my yard as you want to! I just can’t wait to vote for more women.”
Several woman have also filed to run for the open House seat in New Hampshire, which could preserve its status as the nation’s only all-female, all Democratic congressional delegation.
“What’s really remarkable about this election year is that gender is being viewed as more of an asset than it ever has been,” said Melissa Deckman, a Washington College professor of political science. “I think they’re at a point where the system is so broken, ‘Why don’t we just talk about what being a woman brings to the table?’”
But even in the “Year of the Woman 2.0,” some states will still lose female lawmakers and revert to all-male congressional delegations. The only woman running for Congress in South Dakota this year lost her race, while the previous delegate for the state’s single at-large District, Kristi Lynn Noem, gave up her seat to run for governor. (She’s widely expected to win.) Democrat Sharice Davids is the only woman left standing in Kansas’ congressional races, but her election for its 3rd Congressional District is considered a “toss-up” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections.
During her primary, Williams said, women would wonder aloud whether Montana could ever elect another woman to office. A woman last represented Montana in Congress from 1941 to 1943, when Jeannette Rankin won another term more than two decades after her first.
“They would say, ‘Yeah, but can a woman win?’ And early on, I would talk about statistics, and [being] the right candidate at the right time. And near the end, when I was becoming a little more blunt, I would say, ‘Well, not if we keep saying that,’” Williams recalled. “But you know what? I’m not hearing that now.”
Cover image: Top left: Katie Arrington (AP Photo/Richard Shiro); Bottom left: Kendra Horn (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki); Top right: Amy McGrath (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley); Bottom right: Bibiana Boerio (Boerio for Congress)