The wave of motivated women who ran for office this season dominated Tuesday’s midterms, setting records for female representation from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill in election outcomes that marked a new Year of the Woman in politics.
In Massachusetts, women’s ranks in the Legislature increased from 24.5 percent to 28.5 percent. In Washington, Congress will get at least 35 female newcomers — a figure that exceeds that first vaunted “Year of the Woman,” which followed the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into sexual harassment alleged by Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The US House — which Democrats claimed as the majority party, thanks in large part to female victories — will have more than 100 women for the first time.
“In spite of the challenges they may have confronted, campaigning as newcomers, they did deliver,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “They not only reached a record level of representation, but they were a significant factor in lifting the House from red to blue.”
Congress got its first Muslim women members in Rashida Tlaib, a former Michigan state legislator, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota; and its first two Native American women, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas. Texas, which had never before elected a Latina to Congress, sent two — Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut will be the first black woman to represent her state in Congress.
And Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilor who upset 10-term incumbent Representative Michael Capuano in the primary, became the first woman of color elected to represent Massachusetts in Washington, D.C. In an interview Wednesday morning, Pressley said she’s excited to join what looks to be the most diverse incoming congressional class in history.
However, Pressley added, “None of us ran to make history. Only to make change.”
“If there’s a connective thread and tissue, I don’t think it’s just that we’re women,” she said. “I think it’s the type of campaigns that we ran and the way we intend to govern. We all built diverse, grass-roots coalitions, people-powered movements, our commitment to continue to engage these new voices, to maintain the hope that we have given or restored to many, to lead with the strength of conviction.”
Voters also rewarded some of the female candidates who approached their campaigns in less conventional ways.
Dana Nessel was elected Michigan’s attorney general Tuesday after a campaign in which she seized directly upon the #MeToo movement, with ads that asked voters to consider: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
Katie Hill, a 30-year-old first-time candidate who unseated Republican incumbent Steve Knight in a congressional district north of Los Angeles, spoke openly during her campaign about sexual assault and having considered an abortion.
The first “Year of the Woman” was, mathematically speaking, not all that dramatic, delivering 28 new female legislators to Congress (24 to the House and 4 to the Senate) and boosting women’s representation by 4 percent in 1992.
But that record has been unmatched since, as women built their representation up incrementally to 20 percent of Congress, noted Dittmar, project director at Gender Watch 2018, a partnership between the Center for American Women and Politics and the Barbara Lee Foundation. This year’s gains — still not official as some races are too close to call — are expected to boost women’s ranks in Congress to at least 23 percent, she noted.
“2018 is so much more than a year of the woman. It’s part of a movement that has been building for years and will change the face of politics in this country,” said Andrea Dew Steele, founder and president of Emerge America, a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
“But back then, we weren’t able to sustain into a lasting movement of women gaining political power at all levels,” she said. “However, this year . . . we expect the victories we saw last night to continue growing for years to come.”
Steele pointed to the “infrastructure” already built by groups like Emerge, which have been working for years to recruit candidates at every level of government to build a stronger bench of female candidates.
“This is not a wave that’s going to crash and die out,” Steele said. “This is just the beginning.”
In Massachusetts, women claimed a record number of seats in the House — 46 out of 160 — and inched up their total in the Senate to 11 out of 40. That boosted women’s overall representation in the Legislature to an all-time high — 57 members, or 28.5 percent of the House and Senate. The previous high-water mark, set in 1999, was 52 women and was matched again in 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2009, but not since.
Women’s activists say they want to increase women’s representation not only for fairness’ sake, but also to increase the diversity of perspectives in government.
“We do not change the face of politics unless we literally change the face of politics,” said Becca Rausch, 39, a Democrat who toppled incumbent state Senator Richard Ross in her first legislative campaign. “These are huge wins — for everyone. Because the more equality we have at the table, the more representative voices we have at the table, the better the conversation and the better the outcome.”
Rausch was one of several female newcomers who upset Republican legislative incumbents. In the House, 32-year-old Tram Nguyen, (pronounced “win”), ousted incumbent Republican state Representative Jim Lyons from the Andover-based swing district seat he had held since 2010. Lyons was known as Beacon Hill’s leading abortion opponent and had spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to amend the state constitution to block state money from funding abortions for low-income women. As a result, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts made Nguyen’s campaign its top legislative priority.
Nguyen, whose family came to America from Vietnam as political refugees when she was 5, works as a legal aid attorney who handles cases including veterans and domestic violence. She said she’s been an advocate through her career and knew how to listen to her future constituents on the campaign trail.
“People want to be heard,” she said. “They want someone to be able to listen to their concerns and relate to them in a real way.”