Women barreled through long-standing barriers on Capitol Hill in 1992, winning elections to the House and Senate in record numbers. And then they were promptly told how to vote by senior male colleagues, ignored in elevators and even turned away at the chamber doors because “staff” weren’t allowed on the floor.
More than a quarter-century after the “Year of the Woman,” women still make up only one in five elected officials on Capitol Hill. But this election cycle, more women are signing up to run for the highest elected offices than ever before — so far, at least 575 women have declared their intention to run for the House, the Senate or governor.
“This is not just a curiosity. It’s not an interesting number or statistic. It’s historic,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), one of two dozen female lawmakers elected to the House in 1992 for the first time. “This year a lot of unspoken but tough walls, I think, have come tumbling down.”
There’s no single explanation for the crush of female candidates flooding the field this year, though reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency and the burgeoning #MeToo movement is certainly playing a part on the Democratic side. Nearly three-quarters of potential female congressional and gubernatorial candidates this year are Democrats.
But women on the ground — candidates, consultants, pollsters, researchers and lawmakers — say they think the reason for the deluge of female candidates is much deeper than just a knee-jerk reaction to Trump or the national conversation around sexual harassment.
“That is all important. But in politics, I think what you’re seeing is enormous frustration among women,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at Cook Political Report who has studied female candidates for the Senate and governor for 30 years.
“I think it’s frustration that some of the biggest issues in our country, and some of the issues that are very important to women, are not being solved," she added. Duffy was speaking at “Ready to Run,” a training program that advises potential female candidates on all levels nationwide, the latest of which was recently held in Washington, D.C.
POLITICO will be tracking the status of female candidates — how they are faring in primaries, the themes driving their election contests and the stories of individual candidates — through Election Day.
The story will be told not only through text. The Women Rule Candidate Tracker — an innovative research collaboration between POLITICO, the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers-New Brunswick and the Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center — will provide a detailed snapshot of how women are performing. It will include up-to-date information about who’s winning and losing, where election dollars are flowing and the issues dominating the debate.
With the first primary in the books, here are five trends we’ll be paying attention to leading up to Nov. 6:
The Year of the Woman?
The 2018 election cycle is being dubbed by some as the new “Year of the Woman,” a throwback to 1992, when more women than ever before were elected to Congress. There has been a surge of potential female candidates this election cycle, with nearly 60 percent more women declaring plans to run for the House and Senate this year compared to the 2016 election.
Early signs of a potential wave of female candidate were on display in Texas, where primary season kicked off Tuesday. More than half of the 50 women competing for House seats in the Lone Star State won their primary or will advance to a runoff in May. And Texas is on track to elect its first two Latinas to the House after two women — Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia — won their primaries in solidly Democratic districts.
At least 494 women, both Republicans and Democrats, have said they’re running for Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. That’s up from 312 women who filed to run for House or Senate in 2016. And after the Texas primary results, 470 potential female candidates are still vying for House and Senate seats.
"What has been holding us back when it comes to women’s representation, in Congress in particular, is we haven’t seen enough of an increase in women running," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "We’ve always been saying we need more women to run. And we’re already seeing that [bear out] in Texas."
2. Change comes slowly
No matter how the election turns out, women still have a long way to go to reach proportional representation in Congress and governor’s mansions. Women make up only about a fifth of Congress, despite comprising half of the population. And only six states have women as governors, while 22 states have never had a female chief executive.
Women are significantly less likely than men to run for office, even now, according to a POLITICO investigation last year. One reason is many women say they don’t see themselves as candidates and often have to be asked — even convinced — to run. But female lawmakers, researchers and consultants say they see that trend starting to change, slowly, as women become more confident and assertive in workplaces across the U.S., not just in Congress.
“At one time, if [a] woman was running or wanted to run, particularly if she was someone that was not part of the political circle at that time, it was almost pointless,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), another member of the class of 1992. “I think women are much more empowered today and are being paid a lot more attention to and being valued more for what they bring than in the past.”
3. History will be made
A dozen states currently have no female representation in Congress. Two states, Vermont and Mississippi, have never elected a woman to the House or Senate. But the lack of a female presence in several of those congressional delegations is set to change after November. In Mississippi, three of the eight candidates running to replace retiring Rep. Gregg Harper in a solidly Republican district are women.
One of them, Sally Doty, a two-term Republican state senator, said it took some work to make voters comfortable with electing a woman.
“I’ve never heard a male candidate asked, ‘How are you going to juggle your family responsibilities?’ When I won my first election, that was the first question from my local radio station,” Doty said. While that question has yet to come up in her House campaign, Doty said she volunteers the information to voters because she knows it is on their minds. I "tell them my kids are grown,” she added, "because I think it makes the conversation go a little easier.”
4. The gubernatorial landscape will change, too
Currently women hold six out of 50 governorships. But that could soon change.
Of the 36 gubernatorial races in 2018, 35 are expected to have female candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics. And at least 47 women have declared plans to run in 17 open seats, where female candidates generally have a better chance because they’re not trying to unseat an incumbent, although many will be competing directly in head-to-head contests.
Janet Mills, Maine’s first female attorney general who hopes to become the state’s first female governor, said a lot of things have changed since she started running for office. As New England’s first female district attorney, she recalled being asked by her male counterparts to “make the coffee” at a national conference.
But more progress is needed, she said. “There are a lot of men who give lip service to women’s issues because they want the so-called 'women’s vote,'” Mills said. “When the most qualified person for the job happens to be a woman, you don’t see the men standing to the side and saying, ‘Oh yeah, she should have it.’”
5. Equality isn’t going to happen overnight
Even with the record-breaking number of women planning to run this year, they still only make up less than a quarter of all likely congressional candidates in the 2018 cycle, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And there's a significant disparity between Democrats and Republicans. Of the 494 women who have said they’re running for the House and Senate this year, 76 percent are Democratic candidates.
“It’s obviously in response to the 2016 election of Donald Trump. That has activated and energized a lot of women particularly on the Democratic side,” said Christine Matthews, a longtime GOP consultant and researcher. “What it has done on the Republican side, if it’s done anything, it has dampened enthusiasm. It’s a tough time to be a Republican woman right now, let’s be honest.”
The imbalance carries over to Congress, where about three-quarters of all female lawmakers are Democrats. Matthews attributed the discrepancy to more female voters identifying as Democrats than Republicans. She also said that unlike on the Democratic side, where a bevy of women’s groups, most notably EMILY’s List, are at the ready to assist candidates, Republican women considering a run for office don’t have the same level of support.
“They make a big difference on the Democratic side," Matthews said, "and there’s not a comparable organization on the Republican side.”