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Women Won at the Ballot in Record Numbers. Here’s What’s Next

4 things we’ll watch as the ‘Year of the Woman’ matures

Virginia Democrat Jennifer Wexton watches election returns as campaign staffers yell out returns in the campaign's war room on Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Virginia Democrat Jennifer Wexton watches election returns as campaign staffers yell out returns in the campaign's war room on Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Historic wins for women in the midterm elections drove home the interpretation that 2018 was, indeed, the “Year of the Woman.” But it remains unknown whether women’s political capital will continue to rise.

The 101 women and counting who won House races face numerous obstacles to standing out in a divided Congress where seniority often plays more of a role in determining political power than success at the ballot box or legislative ingenuity.

They will enter an institution with increased diversity but still overwhelming proportions of white men compared to the greater American population.

And even though political donors and outside groups funneled more money and support to female candidates this year than ever before, the cohort still lagged behind their male counterparts in total fundraising. Established groups that identify and support candidates early in their campaigns were criticized for writing off several minority women until they had already established undeniable star power. And Republican groups fell far short of their goals despite early recruitment efforts.

Also Watch: New Members Could Spell Trouble for Pelosi’s Speaker Bid

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Here are some trends we will be watching to see how the “Year of the Woman” moves forward. 

1.Finding power in office

With Democrats gaining control of the House, the powerful committee leaders who will set the agenda and determine which bills make it to the floor, are basically predetermined. Democratic lawmakers who are now serving as ranking members, the top posts in the minority party, are all expected to be elevated to committee chairs in the majority, Nancy Pelosi said before Election Day. Only four women are in line — Nita M. Lowey at Appropriations, Maxine Waters at Financial Services, Eddie Bernice Johnson at Science Space and Technology and Nydia M. Velázquez at Small Business.

On the Republican side, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking woman in the GOP, announced Thursday she would not run for re-election for GOP conference chairwoman, and instead opt to seek a ranking member subcommittee post on the Energy and Commerce Committee. That leaves a void at the top for Republican women, but it could potentially be filled if Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, wins her bid for the post Rodgers is vacating. 

But newcomers can distinguish themselves in other ways.

“Newcomers always struggle to have influence,” said Kelly Dittmar,  assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But there are ways to tell if the new women are taking on influential roles, she said.

Things to watch for include who is on the Sunday talk shows and what new members say in their first floor speeches, Dittmar said. The issues women choose to tackle for their first bills, and the list of co-sponsors will also provide clues to whether new members are getting support from party leaders to take on bold initiatives and find an audience for their ideas.

2. The future of women who lost

There’s a flip side to the roughly 130 women who will be sworn into office in January. Nearly as many lost their heated midterm battles and hundreds more fell in primaries.

They include groundbreaking candidates such as Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot who raised an astounding $7.8 million and came close to toppling incumbent Republican Andy Barr in the  conservative 6th District.

New York Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow her to use campaign funds to pay for child care for her toddlers.

And Republican Mia Love — who trailed at publication time in her bid to keep her seat in Utah’s 4th District — is the only black Republican woman ever elected to Congress and has been a standout on issues such as consumer financial protection and abortion opposition.

Their next steps could provide an indication of whether past biases that have kept women out of office are shifting. 

Amanda Hunter, of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, said women are often blamed more than men when they lose campaigns and are less likely than men to be given a second shot.

“Women are expected to be banished and never given a chance again,” she said. 

But the foundation, which supports women’s equality and representation in American politics, released a study this week showing that voters rate women who lost favorably and did not give negative ratings to that group on their qualifications or their favorability. 

3. More barriers to break 

Female candidates this midterm cycle ignored the tattered advice that women can’t win campaigns unless they wear pantsuits and smile. They breastfed in commercials, wore scuba suits and showed their tattoos.

Now the winners will enter an institution that is still more than 75 percent male and where female lawmakers who are still in office have had to fight for their own bathrooms, the right to wear skirts and — just last spring — the right to breastfeed on the Senate floor.

Efforts to update congressional sexual harassment procedures will lose a key advocate with the loss of Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who lost in Virginia’s 10th District. The House and Senate versions of a bill that would update those policies have yet to be reconciled. 

But California’s Zoe Lofgren is next in line to helm the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over issues such as harassment rules and training, or the number of changing tables in the bathrooms. 

Other things to watch include the future of the women-only supper club in the Senate, where female senators of both parties historically hashed out compromises over thorny issues such as the 2013 government shutdown, or the membership and agenda of the Bipartisan Women’s Caucus in the House.

4. Dead ends on the campaign trail

State party leaders and groups that determine who gets money and support at the crucial early stages of a campaign have historically overlooked women — especially women of color. That started to change in 2018, but there is still plenty of ground to cover.

“When we talk about women in politics, this is one of the areas where we see the most persistent hurdles,” Dittmar said.

The 2018 cycle saw an unprecedented rise in female donors giving to Democratic campaigns. But women still struggled to raise as much money as men. 

Black female candidates criticized Democratic gatekeepers, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List, for neglecting them early in their campaigns. EMILY’s List funnels early money and support to female candidates who support abortion rights. 

Meanwhile, the GOP’s lack of a formal infrastructure to guide women through the election process was keenly felt. Only 13 of the 100 women who had won their elections by Thursday were Republicans. And only one of them, Carol Miller who won her House race for West Virginia’s 3rd District, was not an incumbent. 

“We need to go out and get our women engaged,” Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership, told The Washington Post. “We are being dwarfed by the Democrats. This is something we are going to focus on.”

Katherine Tully-McManus and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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