Since Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, the numbers game for women in elected office has been marked by largely glacial progress. But a new report lays out the extent to which women and people of color have gained ground in elections around the country over the last two years.
The report, prepared by The Reflective Democracy Campaign, which studies demographics in American politics, crunched data from nearly 45,000 elected officeholders nationwide, and the findings were telling. (The R.D.C. is a project of the Women Donors Network, which organizes liberal women donors.)
The research found that in large part, women and people of color in 2018 were as likely to win their elections as white men, once they were on the ballot.
“After a record-breaking election for women and people of color, the numbers are clear,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. “White men’s electability advantage is a myth. When reflective candidates are on the ballot, they win as often as white men.”
White men still dominate the political arena disproportionately to their population, often by a lot. Republican women still struggle more than Democratic women in primaries. Black men are not gaining ground as fast as black women.
On the flip side, there were numerous examples in 2018 of Democratic candidates of color, like Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Antonio Delgado of New York, who were elected to Congress by winning majority-white districts.
The R.D.C. researchers aggregated data for candidates and elected officials over the past five years using information where a candidate or official had self-identified by race or gender; as well as email and phone surveys; voter file matching; and race and gender modeling.
Here are some of the major findings from the report.
No question, 2018 was a banner year for women
While the share of elected seats in local, state and federal office held by women barely increased between 2015 and 2017, those rates soared in 2018, the report found.
The increase was especially stark at the congressional level. The number of women in Congress — currently 127 — grew 21 percent between 2017 and 2019.
Many women were inspired to run in response to the election of President Trump, and many women voted for them for the same reason. As a result, the greatest increase was in representation by Democratic women; Republican women actually lost ground in the 2018 midterms.
Women candidates benefited from getting in early, having dynamic fund-raising, and in many cases taking advantage of digital campaigns and social media to engage new voters.
Women of color are slowly gaining ground
Although they make up 20 percent of the population, women of color still hold a meager 4 percent of all elected offices. But since 2015, the researchers found, women of color have increased their ranks by 41 percent in Congress and 38 percent in state legislatures.
The Democratic electorate is getting younger, more liberal and more diverse, and the Democratic candidates who are winning are reflecting both those demographic shifts and an increase in recruitment of such candidates. Indeed, for the first time since the group began tracking data in 2012, the majority of Democratic candidates in 2018 were not white men.
Among female Democrats who ran last year, 9 percent were women of color; among Republicans, a mere 1 percent were. Female Democrats, especially women of color, often find their easiest path to election is taking on a male incumbent from their own party in a primary, which political gatekeepers greatly discourage.
State legislatures are ground zero for women gaining seats
Before the 2018 election, only two states — Colorado and Vermont — had 40 percent or more female lawmakers. There are now three more states that can claim that distinction: Oregon, Washington and Nevada, which boasts the nation’s only majority-female legislature.
In four states, the number of women legislators increased by 50 percent or more: Oklahoma, Wyoming, Michigan and Nebraska. Women make up almost 29 percent of state legislators over all, outpacing their ranks in Congress. White men’s share of state legislative seats dropped by 6 percent from 2017 to 2019.
State legislatures are often a petri dish for prescriptive policy, as they can be for changes to demography.
White men still control cities and the vast majority of governors’ mansions
Although white men are only 20 percent of the population of major cities, they make up over 60 percent of the mayors of those cities. In 2015, there were 44 male governors, and now there are 41, demonstrating that winning statewide is still a big challenge for women.
However, cities are proving to be a growth center for women and people of color: 51 of America’s 200 most populous cities are led by mayors of color, with 13 African-American women running the show, including in Chicago, Charlotte, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The bottom line: Women are still not well-represented
For all the crowing about women in Congress this year, they still make up less than one-quarter of that legislative body. Republican women are struggling the most; unlike Democrats, they often lose in primaries, and are working to regroup on that front for 2020.
As the report notes, millions of Americans live in states where men hold over three-quarters of legislative seats, and the percentage of white men holding elected office is still double their share of the population.
It will be interesting to see if in 2020, among both Republicans and Democrats, more women decide to step up without being asked to run — historically, one of the impediments to women running is their own will to do so — and are able to raise money in primary fights against men.