The 2018 midterms were hailed as another “Year of the Woman.” And Tuesday’s election didn’t disappoint. With a record number of women on the ballot, female candidates (and voters) fueled a night of historic firsts, major upsets and gains in gender parity across the country.
So what will — and won’t — those wins actually mean in terms of representation? And how will the outcome of the 2018 midterms actually affect policy and future campaigns? Read on for a look at what the results and experts can tell us about what’s to come for women in politics.
More than 100 — a record — are expected to serve in the House of Representatives come January, boosting the body’s share of female members from to 20 to 23 percent. In the Senate, the nonpartisan Gender Watch projected there will be at least 23 women, a tie for the current high, though a runoff in Mississippi will likely boost that figure by one. These newly minted women lawmakers are also more diverse. The incoming Congress will include a record number of women of color. That cohort includes the first Muslim, Native American and refugee women ever to serve in Washington, as well as many firsts in terms of diversity on the state delegation level.
There were historic firsts on the state level, too, though results so far show the number of female governors will stay steady at the previous record of nine. And while we’re still waiting for full analysis of state legislative elections and other down ballot races, the trends suggest the final numbers will show a bump there.
And already some groups are crediting the surge in female candidates, especially on the left, with determining party control in key races. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez called Tuesday “truly the year of the woman everywhere.”
“Women led the charge tonight in flipping the House for the Democratic Party and in picking up key seats in state legislatures nationwide,” Andrea Dew Steele, president and founder of Emerge America, said in a statement. “This isn’t a moment, it is a movement for justice, equality and what is right for this country.”
So what will the shifts in representation actually mean for the future of American politics? Of course, at the most basic level, the answer to that question depends a lot on the women who were actually elected. Based on their campaign promises, we can expect some of Congress’ groundbreaking new female members in the U.S. House — names like Democrats Sharice Davids, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — to be leaders in the progressive movement and push for policies like abolishing ICE, passing a $15 minimum wage, and Single-Payer Healthcare.
On the state level, NARAL Pro-Choice America says the number of female governors who support abortion rights has tripled. Women candidates may also be key in holding some competitive seats in GOP hands. Republican Young Kim, who as of Wednesday morning is holding a narrow lead in her race for U.S. House, says she’d bring conservative values to the Southern California swing district. She’d also be the first Korean American woman in the House.
Many people (and female electeds themselves) argue that more women in office leads to more attention to issues that impact women directly, including child care, maternal health and violence against women. And they say women are more likely to cooperate and work across the aisle. Evidence on that front is mostly anecdotal, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. But research does suggests that, regardless of party, more women in office means more gets done.
According to CAWP, women tend to co-sponsor more bills and drive more federal dollars back to their district. And throughout the world, United Nations Women points to evidence that higher levels of women in government has led to everything from more drinking water projects to increased child care coverage.
When it comes to future campaigns, Tuesday’s wave of wins for women could have a ripple effect of sorts. Some female candidates celebrating historic wins are already pledging to use their newfound bully pulpits to motivate more women from a range of backgrounds to run for office.
“Growing up, I never thought someone would look like me in a position of leadership. My hope is that tonight’s victory shows young Native people across the state that anything is possible,” Peggy Flanagan, whose win as Minnesota lieutenant governor made history for Native American women in state government, told supporters Tuesday night. “I want every young woman in Minnesota to know, black, white, brown, indigenous, that you can grow up and you can lead this state. And my job will be to hold the door open for people who never thought that day was possible.”
So what now? Step one is to wait and see how the uptick in female members impacts policies in Congress and the states. But in the meantime, advocates for gender parity are already shifting focus ahead to what it will take to elect more women in years to come. Across party lines, leaders on the topic are pledging to keep up that work.
Emily’s List, the Democratic powerhouse PAC that has heard from tens of thousands of women who want to run since the 2016 election, is vowing to press on in recruiting, training and supporting female candidates.
Groups supporting Republican women, who saw fewer gains in terms of raw candidate numbers this year, are taking a similar post-election tone.
RightNOW Women PAC said in a statement that it ended the election having “engaged with more conservative women candidates and supporters than ever before this cycle” and is “excited about what the future holds as we work towards 2020 to bring even more qualified Republican women candidates to the forefront." And Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership, said they “can’t let enthusiasm from ‘the year of the woman’ be limited to just 2018.”
“That’s why I intend on working with and supporting women candidates nationwide to keep this momentum moving as we look to 2020,” she added.
Paramount to improving gender parity in the long run will be those groups’ encouraging women who lost on both sides of the aisle to gear up to run again. As historic as Tuesday’s wins were, there are still more glass ceilings to shatter. Voters in Vermont and Idaho stopped short of electing the first transgender and Native American women as governor.
As it stands now, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is trailing in her bid to become the country’s first black female governor. Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, said that while a loss by Abrams would be “extremely disappointing,” she’s confident women of color can build on the groundbreaking candidacies of 2018. “If anything we are emboldened to continue to fight on because the stakes are too high for us not to,” she said. “Our resolve to increase the number of black women elected remains strong.”
For all the gains, the share of female lawmakers will remain below 25 percent in most places (at the risk of sounding like a broken record: As a reminder, we make up 50 percent of the population). Given that reality, experts say the most important factor moving forward will be to continue the dialogue around what it will take to get more women elected and why it matters for many years to come.
“The conversation doesn’t stop here,” Kelly Dittmar, professor with CAWP and author of the new book “A Seat at the Table Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters,” said ahead of the election..“This as a longer-term problem not a problem that can be solved in one cycle”