ISSUE ADVISORY: Political Women Gaining on Many Fronts; Republican Women Surge in the 2020 U.S. House Elections
By Jan Erickson, NOW Government Relations Director
December 21, 2020
A Shattered Glass Ceiling
2020 marks a critical turning point for women in politics and government, beginning with our glass-ceiling-shattering first woman vice-president, a woman of color, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). For feminists, President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s selection of such a strong candidate is an explicit recognition of the tremendous support that women and especially women of color have provided for the Democratic ticket. And, as the president-elect has promised, more women, persons of color and LGBTQIA+ persons will be chosen for important positions in the new administration.
Historic Voter Turnout
The margin of victory for the Biden-Harris ticket was substantial, at more than seven million votes. It was the largest vote percentage obtained against an incumbent president since 1932 and the largest total number of votes in history at 81,284,716. Earlier this week, 538 electors gathered to confirm President-elect’s electoral vote win of 306 against Donald Trump’s 232.
The 2020 voter turnout was record-breaking, the highest in history at 66.2 percent of eligible voters, and 13 million more votes than the previous record for Barack Obama in 2008. The historic turnout, no doubt, was due to the efforts of thousands of grassroots activists who registered new voters, helped in getting out the vote and delivered the message that this would be the most important election of their lives. Considering that the pandemic made the work very difficult, their efforts are all-the-more commendable.
Additionally, women voters did their part. Women have voted at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980, with the gap between women and men growing slightly larger with each successive election.
Kudos should also go to the tens of thousands of election workers, a majority of whom spent many days and long hours tabulating votes, some encountering heckling and troublesome threats from Trump supporters. A big thanks is owed to officials of Divisions of Elections in all the states – many were women – who helped assure that we had a secure, free and fair election.
Yet, Donald Trump continues to insist (and raise more than $250 million to fight the outcome) that the election was stolen by Democrats, reinforcing that message to his loyal followers. The 60 lawsuits brought by Republicans have been mostly turned away by the courts for lack of evidence, including two at the Supreme Court level. Republican activists continue to lie about the election and there is a worry that the legacy will be a general distrust of elections and among many Republicans of the Biden-Harris Administration as legitimately elected.
The most appalling action was a lawsuit originating in Texas and signed by 17 states attorneys general and 126 Republican members of Congress that challenged the Electors in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.The Supreme Court refused to consider it. Nothing like this has ever happened in U.S. history and was considered by some commentators as approaching sedition. Some argued that these members should not be seated in the 117th Congress as they have broken their vows to uphold the Constitution. There is little doubt that Donald Trump and his cult of Republican loyalists have weakened our democracy.
2020 Gender Gap Remains Strong
Political women’s growing power was demonstrated even more strongly in the 2020 gender gap where women voters in several demographic categories were pivotal in the presidential election. Exit polling and election survey data indicate that Black women, Latinas and college-educated women formed an important segment of the seven million vote margin for the Biden-Harris ticket. According to an analysis by the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), surveys show that nine out ten Black women gave their support to Biden-Harris, a somewhat higher percentage than Black men voters. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Latinas voted for the Democratic ticket, slightly higher proportion than that for Latino men, and college-educated women expanded their shift to Democratic support that they showed in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. More college-educated men than in 2016 increased their support for the Democratic ticket.
Gender Gap Can Decide Elections
The gender gap has been present in every election since 1980, one exit polling organization rated the 2020 gap at 12 percent, the difference between 57 percent of women and 45 percent of men voting for Biden-Harris. Another research organization found a smaller gap this year at nine percent. But, the range, historically, has been between 4 and 11 percent. Since many election outcomes are very close, the gender gap effect can be decisive.
U.S. Lagging in Gender Equality
While we celebrate these historic gains by women, the U.S. still lags behind other major democracies. We rank 75th out of 193 countries in terms of gender equality in government. That is according to a 2019 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. An even more dismal report, from the World Economic Forum, the gender gap in political participation by women will not close for another 98 years. Let’s hope they are wrong.
Steady Gains in Congress
Overall, women candidates increased their participation at the federal level. For the U.S. House, women (both major parties) constituted 35.2 percent all nominees for the General Election in 2020; while in 2018, the percentage was 28.4. For the U.S. Senate, 23.9 percent in 2020 compared 20.9 in 2018.
A record number of Republican women ran in the Primaries for the U.S. House: more than 298! This is compared to a previous high of 234, an increase of 27.4 percent. In 2018, the rise in House nominations was almost completely due to Democratic women running. But the opposite was true for 2020 when the increased numbers were due to Republican women’s increased numbers.This interpreted to 94 Republican nominees for the U.S. House – a 77.4 percent increase over the previous high. Democratic women, according to this CAWP analysis, were also at a record high this year, but at a more modest level of a 12.1 percent increase. Thirty-six Republican women won in the General; 17 are new to the House.
Women Democrats, both House and Senate, will total 106 for the 117th Congress, just two less than in 2019 (as of 12/17), while Republican women total 37, an increase of six over their record-setting 30 in 2006. But the 2020 number of Republican women serving was 22, so the 2021 gain is 15. The increase of Republicans overall in the House, one analyst wrote, puts the party in a good position to retake control in 2022.
CAWP reports that 143 women will serve in the 117th Congress (January 2021 – January 2023) – that total beats the record number of women in Congress at 127 set in 2019. The proportion of women lawmakers in Congress will be 26.7 percent in the 117th Congress, an increase of 3 percent over the current Congress. The freshman class in the House includes at least 26 non-incumbent women, nine Democrats and 17 Republicans.
As of today, there are two U.S. House seats undecided. In New York’s 22nd Congressional District (CD) recounts show the Republican challenger, former Rep. Claudia Tenney, has a razor-thin lead over Democratic incumbent, Anthony Brindisi. A judge is reviewing that election. For Iowa’s 2nd CD, Democrat Rita Hart is contesting the outcome by appealing to the House Administration Committee after a recount put Hart six votes behind Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Republican. Hart alleges that 22 ballots were legally cast, but unlawfully excluded. It will be up to the House in January to determine the result.
New Senate Line-Up
In the current Senate, there are nine Republican women and 17 Democratic women serving, one quarter of that body and a record high. That total may change depending on who is selected as a replacement for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) – if that happens before adjournment. Frontrunners for that seat are reported to be U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, along with Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
In 2020, there were 60 women who filed to run for the Senate, 37 D and 23 R in the Primary elections. Thirty-nine, of both parties, lost their Primaries, leaving 12 Democrats and nine Republican candidates to compete in the General Election. Two Democratic women and five Republican women won in the General.
Eight women senators were up for re-election: Democrats Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire and Tina Smith of Minnesota and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Martha McSally of Arizona, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia. All incumbents, except Martha McSally, were re-elected, with a run-off election for Kelly Loeffler set for January 5th.
New Republican Members
The 26 (17D, 9 R) Senate women currently serving the total is a record high; for the 117th Congress, the total will be 25 (17D, 8 R), one short of the record in the 2018 elections. Two Democratic women and five Republican women newly elected will join the 18 incumbent women (15 D, 3R) senators who were not up for re-election this year. (Only one Republican senator, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Ak.) will be up for re-election in 2022.)
Reportedly, all new Republican women House members are Trump supporters and are very conservative: opposed to abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, and supporting Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.They are also fiscally conservative and concerned about the $7 trillion national debt, according to The Washington Post. They are a racially and ethnically diverse group, some with office-holding backgrounds and others with business experience. Several have compelling personal stories as immigrants and a survivor of sexual assault.
Women are generally seen as more moderate politically, but whether the new Republican freshman class will exert a moderating influence in the House does not seem likely as they were selected for GOP support because of their uber-conservative bonafides.
Democratic House Majority Shrinks
Unfortunately, the House Democratic majority was reduced from 233 to an uncomfortably small margin of 222 to 212 with the Nov. 3 results. That number will shrink even further with the confirmation of several members nominated for Biden Administration positions.The Republicans gained 17 seats.
Five Democratic women incumbents who flipped Republican districts to Democratic in 2018 were defeated in 2020. Those include Reps. Debbie Mucarsal-Powell and Donna Shalala, both of Florida, Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Xochitil Torres-Small of New Mexico. No Republican women incumbents in the House lost their elections.
Five women incumbents retired this year: Martha Roby (R-Ala.), Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). Lowey has served 32 years In the House and, among many credits, she introduced the caregiver credit under Social Security legislation, a NOW priority bill, over several congresses.
Women of Color Make Gains
Of the 127 women serving in Congress in 2020, 48 are women of color (46D, 4R). According to the CAWP analysis, for the 117th Congress 54 women of color will be serving, exceeding the current record. Of that number, 25 (25D) are Black women, also breaking a record of 22 in 2019; 13 (10D, 3R) are Latinas (breaking a 2019 record); 12 (12D) are Asian or Pacific Islander women; 2 (2D) are Native American women and 1 (1D) is a Middle Eastern or North African woman. One more member, Rep.-elect Yvette Herrell, Republican of New Mexico, listed herself as White, but several media organizations have reported that Herrelll is of Native American heritage and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Two additional women listed their racial heritage as Black/ Asian-Pacific Islander.
In the Senate, no women of color were victorious in the 2020 General Election and none of the four women of color serving currently (a record high) were not up for re-election this year. In the coming year, the number will shrink to three with Sen. Kamala Harris’s assuming the vice presidency. However, if California Gov. Gavin Newsome selects a woman of color to replace Sen. Harris, that number would be maintained.
Women Governors in Office
For the eight women incumbent governors, none faced an election this year. Among those are three Republicans and five Democrats, all will serve through 2022. These include: Kay E. Ivey (R -Ala.), Laura Kelly (D-Kans), Janet T. Mills (D-Maine), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Kristi Noem (R-S. Dak.), Gina M. Raimondo (D-R.I.), Kimberly Reynolds (R-Iowa) and Gretchen E. Whitmer (D-Mich.)
Overall, Democrats hold 23 governorships, while Republicans, hold 27. Of the eleven gubernatorial elections in 2020, only Montana’s governor’s seat changed from Democrat to Republican, with former congressman, Greg Gianforte, winning.
State Legislative Gains by Women
A record number of women are reported by CAWP to serve in state legislatures in 2021, a total of 2,275 state legislators, constituting 30.8 percent of state legislative offices (two races were too close to call as of Dec. 9). The current level is 2,162 women legislators or 29.3 percent, so there is a gain of 113 seats.
Thirty-two states will experience an increase in women legislators, 11 will see a decrease with 7 state having the same number as their did in 2020. The important news is that in the Senates of three states — Nevada, Rhode Island and Arizona – women will hold 50 percent of seats. For four state houses (Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon) women will hold 50 percent of the seats! Gains were greater for Republican women, similar to the advances they made in the U.S. House. But there remains a distinct disparity between the parties, with Republican women constituting only about 31 percent of women state legislators.
Several Extremist Women Elected to Congress
One freshman, Lauren Boebert from Colorado (Dist. 3) is a QAnon believer and joins a second one, Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia (Dist. 14), also a QAnon supporter. QAnon is a crackpot theory about satanism and child trafficking by Democrats that Trump tacitly supports. Surveys show that a significant number of Republican voters believe the theory. The FBI has identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorist threat. One hundred Congressional candidates for the Primary Election were professed QAnon believers, but thankfully the vast majority did not win their races. Still the increased presence of very conservative Republican House members may mean a serious challenge for a progressive agenda in the 117th Congress.
Critical Georgia Senate Run-Offs
The critical matter of which party will control the Senate is still up in the air as of early December, awaiting a dramatic run-off election race in Georgia. The state’s incumbent senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler, who failed to capture 50 percent of the vote in the General Election is competing against Democrat, Rev. Raphael Warnock for the January fifth run-off election. In addition, Georgia’s second U.S. Senate seat is still in contention with incumbent David Perdue (R) also failing to gain 50 percent of the vote in the General and is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff. Georgia’s vote for President-elect Joe Biden came as a surprise, with the slimmest of margins, .2 percent – giving Biden Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes. Women at 54 percent and Black women at 92 percent gave the former vice president his lead – a clear demonstration of the power of the gender gap.
Control of the Senate Rests on Outcome
If the Republicans win one or both of the Senate seats, the Biden Administration will have difficulty moving its agenda through Congress. During the current Congress, the Republican-controlled Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) refused to consider nearly all of the more than 400 important bills the House passed, many of them NOW priority bills. McConnell shamefully held off for months from passing any comprehensive COVID-19 relief legislation as millions of Americans struggled with joblessness, hunger and many facing eviction.
Finally, on Dec. 21, Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus measure which includes supplemental unemployment benefits of $300 per week for 11 weeks, around of direct payments of $600 to adults and children, billions for vaccines and virus mitigation, more funding for food stamps (SNAP), rental assistance, transportation and transit agencies, aid to schools, and revised the Paycheck Protection Program allowing businesses to apply for loans and now extended to arts organizations, including independent movie theaters and performance venues. Very little of the $900 billion is “new” money; the majority had already having been appropriated but unspent in a previous relief package. However, State and local governments were not provided the kind of help they have said they need, having suffered reduced revenue and shouldering the cost of fighting the pandemic.
The negotiators pushed to a future time Sen. McConnell’s demand that immunity from lawsuits be provided for companies (meatpacking, nursing homes, privately-run prisons, etc.) where thousands of persons were inadequately protected from the coronavirus became ill and died.
President-elect Biden welcomed the relief package but said that his administration would push for more COVID-19 relief funding in 2021.Having a newly elected administration that will be far more responsive to the country’s needs due to the pandemic is a great relief.
We wrote this in 2019 and It Still Holds
Despite these exciting developments, women are still underrepresented as a proportion of all nominees and elected lawmakers, and the disparities between parties are notable. That said, women have broken records by incredible margins at almost every level of office, from statewide legislatures to the U.S. Senate. These wonderful achievements should not be overlooked. But NOW activists still need to encourage women to run and help them get elected. NOWPAC is one of our most important entities, in that regard. This election year, NOWPAC endorsed almost 200 feminist candidates, with 111 winning. As of this writing two of our endorsed candidates are in a run-off and one is too close to call. For more information, go to https://www.nowpac.org/
Data gathered from publications by the Center for American Women and Politics in the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
- For more amazing statistics and other updates on women in politics, go to Center for American Women in Politics, Election Analysis | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- Results for Women Candidates in 2020 Elections,Results: Women Candidates in the 2020 Elections | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020: The Gender Gap in Political Engagement, Revisiting the Gender Gap in 2020: The Gender Gap in Political Engagement | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- Record Number of Women for State Legislatures, A Record Number of Women will Serve in State Legislatures in 2021 | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- What You Need to Know About the Record Number of Women State Legislative Nominees in 2020, What You Need to Know About the Record Number of Women State Legislative Nominees in 2020 | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- Women in State Legislative Elections, By State Over Time, Women in State Legislative Elections: Historical State by State Summary | CAWP (rutgers.edu)
- Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in Parliament, Women in parliament | Inter-Parliamentary Union (ipu.org)
- World Economic Forum, “Mind the 100 Year Gap”, https://www.weforum.org/reports/gender-gap-2020-report-100-years-pay-equality