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Women Set To Make Gains In Congress, But Still Have A Long Way To Go

Women attend the EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 event at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
Paul Zimmerman
Getty Images
Women attend the EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 event at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

The United States could potentially elect its first female president in less than a week. And if Hillary Clinton does win, subsequent Democratic gains in Congress could also usher a record number of women into the House and Senate.

"If what is going on at the top of the ticket drives a big turnout for Democratic candidates, then Democratic women will fare well who are running down ballot," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Still, the gains are likely to be minimal and not close to reflecting the U.S. population. Out of the 100 U.S. senators, there are just 20 women. It's likely the number of women in the Senate will grow, possibly to up to 23 seats. But women make up more than half the country and have been a majority of the electorate in every presidential election since 1984.

In the House, there are currently just 84 women out of 435 members. The gains among women in the House are likely to be minimal, ranging from the possibility of a small decline (if Democratic women lose a handful of toss-up races) to a gain of about five.

"The pace of change is just glacial," Walsh said. "At no level of office in the country do we have over 25 percent of women in service. There's still a lot of work to be done."

The good news is that a record number of 40 women filed to run for the Senate this year (15 won their primaries). A total of 272 women filed to run for the House, and a new record of 167 women won their primaries, narrowly passing the past benchmark set in 2012, according to data from Rutgers.

State legislatures would also see an uptick in more women, too. There are a record 2,602 women running for state legislative seats, surpassing the previous record by 65, according to data from Rutgers. Women could set new records for representation at the state level — currently that's at 1,805 women, just shy of a quarter of all legislators.

"Perhaps this year's step upward will mean resumed progress toward better representation for women in statehouses around the country. Women are more than half the population, so we would certainly expect women to be more than a quarter of state legislators," Walsh said in a statement.

Where the gains could come from

As we noted earlier this year, if Democrats do win the Senate, it will be because of their female recruits in many of the top races. Although female incumbents are retiring in Maryland and California (and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is guaranteed to be replaced by a woman), in Illinois, it looks like a near certainty that Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth will beat GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, which would keep the Democratic baseline at 20.

2016 could see a record number of women elected to the Senate.
Jessica Taylor / Vital Statistics, Brookings Institution
Vital Statistics, Brookings Institution
2016 could see a record number of women elected to the Senate.

To gain the majority, wins by Democratic women in Pennsylvania (former state environmental chief Katie McGinty) and North Carolina (former state Rep. Deborah Ross) would make that possible.

Democrats would like to hold Nevada to boost their overall number in the Senate. A win by former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto gives them another woman in the Senate. She would also be the first Latina elected to the chamber.

New Hampshire features two women running against each other. So that race won't change the number of women in the Senate, but a win by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan over GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte would give Democrats a boost.

If Democrats do control the Senate, there could be more committee chairwomen as well. Currently, only one woman heads a Senate committee (Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Energy and Natural Resources). But there are several more women who are ranking members on key committees and could be in line if the balance of power shifts.

Democrats could make gains among House women, too. There are currently 62 Democratic women and 22 Republicans. While 11 women are retiring from the House or leaving for other reasons, potential new members — and some in very competitive contests — are likely to make up that gap, and then some.

Top races in New Hampshire, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Minnesota and New York will help determine not only how many women are in the 116th Congress but also how much Democrats are able to cut into the GOP's 30-seat House majority. (See our list of the top 40 House races for more on these contests).

Republican women look to make up ground

Any gains are likely to skew toward Democrats, which makes some sense, because women tend to vote somewhat more Democratic. And, Walsh noted, Republican women could see their numbers dip, putting pressure on the GOP to try to catch up somehow in the future.

The problem for Republican women has been a decades-long lack of infrastructure helping both recruit and boost women, compared with EMILY's List, a Democratic group, which was founded over 30 years ago to boost pro-abortion-rights female candidates.

Republicans are looking to catch up, though. Maggie's List was founded in 2010 to help recruit and fund female candidates who are fiscally conservative and support strong national security, though it does not have a litmus test on social issues like abortion. This year, the organization is backing more than 30 incumbents and challengers.

The GOP group didn't endorse in the presidential race, but Maggie's List Executive Director Missy Shorey argued that one way to try to counter some of the rhetoric of this election is to work on electing more Republican women.

"There are less [GOP women], but that doesn't mean we're any less potent," Shorey told NPR. "Especially given the tone and tenor of this campaign, it's critical to have women on both sides of the aisle. That's how we raise the sensitivity."

She continued, "Will we need to look back as a nation, as women, as leaders and as conservatives and learn from the election results on Wednesday morning? Absolutely. And what we need to do is assess what is the best way to move forward to keep this conversation going."

Democratic groups look to seize their moment

For EMILY's List, this moment has been years in the making, and several of the women who could win Senate seats, like Hassan and Cortez Masto, have long been working with the group in state races.

"This is decades of work to help raise women's voices and make sure that women are represented in all levels of government," said Rachel Thomas, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List.

And the opportunity they're on the cusp of, Thomas and other Democratic women say, has been made more likely by a polarizing GOP nominee who has said controversial things about women, was caught on tape in 2005 describing how he would grope and kiss women unwanted and has almost a dozen women coming forward to accuse him of improper behavior.

"I do think that this is a moment for women, not just running for office, but for issues that matter to women," Thomas said. "We could not have a more clear or stark contrast between these two presidential candidates."

Planned Parenthood is also deploying a massive ground-game effort and digital campaign in the final days to help boost Clinton and other female Senate candidates. They're doing so in places like New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Nevada, along with targeting several House races and state legislative chambers, where they fear GOP majorities could pass more legislation to block access to contraceptives and abortion.

Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that having more women's voices in office is critical to protecting women's health care access by putting forward voices who have had these real-life experiences.

"Women have a personal experience of needing to make sure that they have birth control all the time, and a personal experience of what it means to make a decision, to have a baby, to have a pregnancy or not," Schiefeling said. "I think it's just a different lived experience."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.