By Amber Phillips
June 8, 2016
On Tuesday, the United States woke up to its first de facto female presidential nominee in Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, California nominated two women — state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) — for its high-profile race for a U.S. Senate seat. And on almost every other primary day this year, advocates from both parties celebrated women winning big in state and local races.
Things are going so well that Democrats and Republicans alike are pressing the idea that 2016 has been a fabulous year for women so far.
But has it been really? When you zoom out, the experts who study this sort of thing say it’s going to take much more than a few dozen victories and a female presidential nominee for women to bridge the perennial political gender gulf. And the progress made isn’t expected to be more than incremental.
This, of course, is not a new question. We’ve been asking whether women are finally having their breakthrough political moment for decades, going back to 1992 — the “Year of the Woman” — when four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, more than doubling the two already there. And the answer has almost always turned out to be that women didn’t make massive gains.
“A growing body of evidence suggests that these path-blazing women have proved to be cautionary examples — not role models — for others who might consider running for office,” wrote The Post’s Karen Tumulty 20 years later.
It’s tempting to say this year is finally going to be different, especially when you see Clinton claiming victory Tuesday night. Or when you look at the programs both sides have dedicated to recruiting and training female candidates. Or when you look at the fact that women in states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Nevada are crucial to Democrats’ plan to take back control of the Senate.
But that argument risks ignoring the fact that women are still vastly underrepresented in politics — as they have been for decades and will continue to be. It’s really just a matter of degrees.
It’s also a matter of just how few women still run for office.
“They win at the same rate as men,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “We just aren’t seeing enough of them.”
The number of women filing to run in U.S. Senate and House seats this year isn’t even a record, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. And even if it were a record, it’d be by a few seats here or there. Women make up slightly less than 20 percent of Congress. That’s more than double the 10 percent from a decade ago, but is still nowhere near the 50 percent ratio that mirrors our population at large.
The gender parity isn’t much better in the states. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of women in state legislatures has increased by some 300 seats — an increase of less than 15 percent. After the 2014 elections, there were 2,528 female state legislative representatives for the two major parties — out of more than 7,300 total seats.
Change is just moving too slowly to be cast as real change, say advocates like Walsh.
“If the goal is political parity, doing it in increments of five is going to take a very long time,” Walsh said.
What’s more, how women fare in politics is still too closely tied to partisanship. If you’re a woman in public office, you’re much more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican, Walsh noted. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the bottom line is that Democrats have simply been investing in recruiting women longer than Republicans have, and women tend to lean more Democratic than Republican.
Still, given the history Clinton just made, it’s worth asking whether this election will present at least some tailwinds for women. Could her nomination be the moment that women finally start running in bigger numbers and actually close the gap in a significant way?
The consensus from advocates for women in politics: probably not in the short term, but maybe in the long term.
First, the why-nots: America’s first female presumptive presidential nominee is about to spend the next five months grinding through what could be one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory. She’ll have to respond to attacks questioning everything from her credentials to her marriage to her “shrill” voice (Donald Trump’s words, not ours). If Clinton is supposed to be a role model for aspiring female politicians, her upcoming presidential campaign might not be.
“I keep telling our candidates: You’re not running against Donald Trump,” said Andrea Dew Steele, who founded Emerge America in 2002 to train and recruit Democratic women.
On the other side of the aisle, Clinton’s likely nomination isn’t really something Republican women are celebrating, for obvious political reasons.
“It doesn’t mean we’re against a woman president,” said Julie Conway, the head of VIEW PAC, which funds and recruits Republican women. “Because I’ll tell you, I can’t wait to have a woman president. But it has to be the right one.”
Long term, advocates are slightly more optimistic about Clinton’s legacy potential for women in politics. If she wins, that is.
Conway said she sees signs everywhere, including at the presidential level, that gender matters less than it used to for voters.
“I would say we’re finally getting to the point where people are looking past [gender] as a motivation to vote one way or the other,” she said.
Dew Steele points to her program’s record year as an indication Clinton may already be shaping the field: They’ve got 315 women running for public office. The highlight of their victories so far is Kentucky, where all eight of their candidates won their primaries in May — including Attica Scott, who knocked off a 35-year male incumbent to become the first black woman in the state’s legislature since 2000.
“All we can say is we’re having a lot of success,” Dew Steele said.
Walsh said she did notice a bump in women filing for congressional office in 2010 and 2012 after Clinton ran in 2008. It was a small bump, but a bump no less. The 2012 election even set the record for the number of women filing for the U.S. Senate at 36. (This year, we’re at 34.) She’ll be looking for similar boosts in numbers in 2018 and 2020 if Clinton is inaugurated as president.
And that’s really where the big difference could come in. Seeing our nation’s first female president could be the game-changing moment women have been looking for, she said.
“We’ve seen women as speaker of the House, we’ve seen women on the Supreme Court. We’ve seen women as governors of states,” Walsh said. “But we have not, in this country, seen a woman as their chief executive — as the place where the buck stops.”
But what’s more likely is this: Unless something drastic changes about the role women play in politics, any gender shifts — this election and for years to come — will continue to be a decades-long process.