There is no doubt that women made history in the 2018 election, running for and winning elected office in record numbers. Non-incumbent women won at higher rates than men across most levels of office and were responsible for the majority of congressional, gubernatorial and statewide elected executive offices that flipped from red to blue. Women of color made history at various levels of office and — perhaps most notably for the future — challenged perceptions that they can’t win over majority-white electorates.
But, even amid the “surge” of women running and winning, women were less than 25 percent of all candidates in 2018 and are less than one-third of officeholders from the state legislative level upward in 2019. Moreover, while Democratic women made representational gains in 2018, the number of Republican female officeholders dropped at every level of elected office. These data are reminders of the work that is left to do — in 2020 and beyond — to achieve greater and more comprehensive gender parity in U.S. politics. Women make up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population.
In a new report from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond,” we emphasize what still needs to be done to achieve parity for women in politics, drawing upon data and research to illustrate both women’s progress and hurdles to officeholding. We also use a rich analysis of what happened for women in the 2018 election to look ahead to 2020. With just over one year until presidential and congressional elections, now is a good time to consider both opportunities and challenges in the next cycle for further closing the gender gap among candidates and elected officials.
While changing these numbers is critical to gender parity in politics, success for female candidates goes beyond the numbers. In 2018, many women challenged stereotypes while campaigning, used their life experiences as women to connect with voters and did not wait to be asked to run. Like many women before them, these women helped to further soften the ground for candidates who are not white men. The women also bolstered campaign strategies that emphasize traits, experiences and expertise that have been undervalued in U.S. politics. Already in 2020 we are seeing this type of disruption continue, from a historic number of women standing on presidential debate stages to the embrace of campaign messages that prioritize gender and racial equity.
Gender disparities in U.S. politics were not upended in a single cycle, despite claims that 2018 marked another Year of the Woman. Instead, 2018 marked progress as well as persistent challenges for women navigating U.S. elections. The next 13 months offer us all an opportunity to evaluate gender and intersectional dynamics in a more complex and comprehensive way, starting with the numbers and then digging deeper to determine what they tell us about who and what we value in U.S. politics.