Graphics by Jasmine Mithani
More women will serve in the 117th Congress than ever before: At least 142 will take their seats in the next Congress, according to ABC News1 race projections, and that number could continue to grow as we don’t yet know who will win several competitive House races featuring women.2
But regardless of how many more women win, the 2018 record of 127 women in Congress has already been shattered. What’s more, the incoming class of women in Congress is not almost exclusively Democrats, as was the case in 2018); instead, at least 35 Republican women are expected to join the 117th Congress, up from 22 in 2018, with some races still too close to call.3
There are, unsurprisingly, still far more Democratic women than Republican women in the next Congress (106 vs. 35 in races projected so far), and we’re still far from reaching gender parity in either chamber, but it does seem as if more women are running — and winning.
Tipping the gender balance in Congress was always going to be hard if only one party was electing large numbers of women, and as you can see in the chart below, that has largely been the case so far, with Democrats electing far more women than Republicans. The GOP made strides this year, but it still has a lot of catching up to do.
In fact, the last time the GOP sent at least 30 women to Congress was in 2004, a record-breaking year then, too. So why are there still so many fewer Republican congresswomen than Democratic ones? One reason is simply that more women identify as Democrats than as Republicans. But it’s also true that Democratic women have long been better positioned to run for political office because they are more likely to have social, recruitment and fundraising networks that support those ambitions than Republican women. Plus, Democratic voters are more likely than Republican voters to say more women should be serving in government.
But this cycle, despite a rocky start, Republicans invested early in Republican women, as I wrote this summer. Groups like Winning for Women and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik’s Elevate-PAC made a concerted effort to recruit strong female candidates to run in competitive seats, and it seems to have paid off, often at the expense of Democratic women who won in red-leaning districts in 2018 — notably Donna Shalala in Florida’s 27th District (defeated by Maria Elvira Salazar), Kendra Horn in Oklahoma’s 5th District (defeated by Stephanie Bice), Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico’s 2nd District (defeated by Yvette Herrell) and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st District (defeated by Ashley Hinson).
Historically, women in both parties (but especially Republicans) have been recruited to run as “sacrificial lambs” in races that the party knew it couldn’t win. And as the chart above shows, that was true this year as well. But many GOP women also ran in more competitive places, and most of them won.
It’s less clear, though, what this uptick in female representation will mean for the future of the legislative branch. Many of the new and returning senators and representatives have very different — and perhaps competing — visions for what it means to be a woman in Congress, which is why, for example, a number of female candidates ran to unseat a female incumbent. There is some evidence that institutions that have more women in their ranks are perceived as more legitimate. As University of South Carolina political science professor Katelyn Stauffer told me via email, “[W]hen individuals believe women are included they express more efficacy, trust, and approval and believe the institution is more competent to create policy.” This could be especially important for Congress, considering most Americans have a poor opinion of it.
But while many people believe that women in political leadership positions are more compassionate and better at building compromise, it’s a relatively open question whether that actually happens in Congress. Women in Congress report spending more time engaging in across-party coalitions than men, and studies suggest that women in Congress are more collegial, but their legislative activity (such as cosponsoring bills) is actually pretty similar to men’s. It seems clear that the growing partisan divide in the U.S. has created fairly strong disincentives for engaging in bipartisan compromise for men — and women. So will electing more women to Congress help curb the polarization between the two parties?
The most likely answer is: No. Take the studies that have found that, women in both parties tend to prioritize issues related to women, children and families once in office. These areas could be a real opportunity for bipartisanship, but an analysis of Senate bill cosponsorship found that these issues are no longer core to the Republican Party and, as a result, Republican women in the Senate did not really advocate for these policies, while Democratic women did. In other words, today’s GOP women and Democratic women might simply view their roles in Congress very differently due to their party allegiance, so they champion very different causes as a result.
Democratic and Republican women may not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, but getting more women in politics should create an environment where women’s distinctive concerns (and voices) are prioritized, especially once women are 30 or 40 percent of a group that makes decisions by majority rule, as research by political scientists Tali Mendelberg and Christopher F. Karpowitz shows. That said, there is still a ways to go before we reach that critical mass. Women will still make up just one-quarter of Congress come January, despite all the gains made in this election. But if the 2018 and 2020 elections are any indication, and the Republican Party stays committed to recruiting women to run, that number is only going to grow.