A record number of women are running for office in 2018. In fact, so many women have committed to running for office during the midterm election season that 2018 is being hailed as the “new” Year of the Woman. The moniker invokes a similar political moment in 1992 when, following testimony given by Anita Hill at Clarence Thomas’ hearings to be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, women saw unprecedented electoral representation in the US Senate. 1992 saw the election of many female political heavyweights; Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, and Carol Moseley Braun were all elected to the Senate. Those four women represented the highest number of female candidates to ever be inaugurated to the Senate at any one time. They all cite the unfair treatment of Anita Hill by the then all-male Senate Judicary Committee as a factor in their decision to run for federal office.
However, since 1992, not much progress has been made in achieving equal representation in the government. In the 2008 elections, women constituted 54 percent of voters, yet only 17 percent of the members of Congress were female. As the country heads in to the midterm elections in November, the number of women currently holding elected office stands at just under 20 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). The continuous disparity between the number of elected male and female officials illustrates the complex and multifaceted political landscape that female officeholders must navigate as they run for and hold elected office.
A large part of the disparities in gender representation are due to how the nation’s political system has traditionally operated. Political scholars have described the system as a “pipeline” or a model of “supply-and-demand”, wherein candidates are traditionally chosen from feed-in fields such as law and business, and generally advance through political levels as they achieve election to office at those levels. While this merit-based approach may seem to make sense, as only the exceptionally qualified are tapped to run, it actually hinders the ability of women to achieve parity in the current political landscape. The lack of representation in the government is troubling because it seems to reproduce and reify existing inequalities, seen in everything from low levels of female lawyers employed at law firms to how infrequently female celebrities appear as guests on late-night talk shows.
Securing equal representation and finally shattering that “highest and hardest of glass ceilings” as former Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, once put it is a sustained effort and cannot end after the 2018 midterm elections. While the unprecedented numbers of female candidates running in 2018 is exciting, women are still less than 25 percent of all congressional and statewide candidates for office. Women are also starting from a deficit, according to CAWP, as 13 female incumbents are not running for re-election in November and many more are embroiled in hotly contested races to keep their seats. Additionally, Republican women have less representation than their female Democratic counterparts, and face increased challenges due to the higher likelihood of female voters to identify as Democrats, and the fact that the Republican Party skews more masculine – both in voter base, platform, and in how the party is stereotyped. Considering the fact that the candidacy gap also grows when race is factored in, it seems that there is much work to be done to ensure that women across the country see themselves represented in their legislators, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or ability.
Many are hailing the midterm election of 2018 as a test of the strength President Donald Trump’s platform and personality. When one considers his history of making sexist comments about women and the allegations of misconduct that have been levelled against him by women, the idea that 2018 will be the “Year of the Woman” in politics makes sense. However, it will be an uphill battle to ensure that the growth in representation for women in elected office is sustained in the future.