Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, made it through the state’s Democratic Senate primary in August uncontested. Now, she’s running against Republican Sen. John McCain. If she wins, she’ll be Arizona’s first female senator.
Kathleen McGinty could be Pennsylvania’s first female U.S. senator, as could, for her own state, Misty Snow from Utah. And, of course, there’s Hillary Clinton, who became the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination and who might become our first Madam President.
But despite these potential firsts, the U.S. isn’t on pace to see equal gender representation in Congress any time soon, and the 2016 elections appear unlikely to speed up the process.
Currently, women make up 20 percent of the Senate and 19 percent of the House of Representatives. The number of women in Congress has been increasing exponentially — if you calculate the trend from the early 1900s (the first woman elected to the House was sworn in there in 19171 and the first woman to hold a Senate seat was appointed in 1922).
But some groups that seek to increase women’s representation in government start with the Congress elected in 1960. Looking only at those more recent elections results in a trend that is more linear and rises more slowly. It’s therefore hard to tell how long it will be before the U.S. reaches congressional gender equality, and estimates depend on which trend you use: Use the exponential trend and we could have gender parity by about 2040; use the (more realistic) recent linear trend and it will take until after 2100. And even though these numbers show that women make up far less than 50 percent of the people in Congress, our data nevertheless overstates how close we have been to gender parity in the past because the percentages above count any woman who served for any part of a two-year Congress, even if she was appointed to fill a vacancy and arrived a few months before the term’s end. Also, it’s possible that neither trend will persist: The number of women in Congress has suddenly dropped or risen before, and the trend calculations assume unlimited growth, but in fact the percentage of women in Congress is capped at 100 percent and growth will likely taper off well before reaching that mark.
One thing is clear, however: 2016 is unlikely to improve the gender parity in Congress by very much. The chart above shows the percentage of congressional seats held by women over time, and obviously we don’t know who will win the 2016 races yet. But there is a slight downtick this year in the number of women on the ballot as major-party nominees — 16 women for the Senate and 167 for the House.
“If women were actually represented in Congress as they are overall, they’d be half,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, the campaign director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a group that works toward increasing the number of women and people of color in politics. “There’s certainly been progress, but it’s been too slow.”
If half of the women running for the Senate this year win, then 23 of the 100 people serving in that chamber will be women, which is only slightly more than we have today. If six or seven women win, as our Senate forecast suggests,2 women would make up just 21 or 22 percent of the Senate. If half of the women running for the House win, there would be 83 women in the House. That’s 19 percent, the same percentage women hold today.
As Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women in Politics, told me, when women run, they win just as often as men do in comparable races, so getting more women into office may be as simple as getting more women on the ballot. The trouble with that theory, however, is that compared to men, Walsh said, women need to be recruited more before they’ll run, they’re less likely to see themselves in leadership roles and they find it harder to get funding once they do decide to run.
Kirkpatrick, for example, was recruited first by friends, then again by her Navajo community, she said in an interview. If no one had asked her to run, she said, she wouldn’t have.
“I came from an era where I was told girls don’t go to college,” Kirkpatrick said. “That was the best advice I’ve ever ignored.”
She has received help from EMILY’s List, a group that has successfully pushed Democratic women toward jobs in Congress and helped raise money to get them elected. The GOP has some PACs with the same goal, but Walsh said they don’t have the same resources that EMILY’s List does.
Why do women need more encouragement to run? Women are less likely than men to see themselves in positions of leadership. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 46 percent of men could see themselves as a leader in business or in government, whereas 31 percent of women said the same.
“There’s a piece of this where [women] sit and look at [Congress] and there aren’t a lot of people who look like [them],” Walsh said.
Even once women are recruited and run, it’s harder for them to find big donors than it is for men to do the same. A report by Political Parity shows that women receive a larger share of their donations from individual donors than male candidates do.
“This means they have a broader support base but are less likely to have big money supporters,” the nonpartisan organization said. “Greater efforts are required to raise the same amount of money.”
“Politics is an old boys’ club. That’s the bottom line,” Carter said. “Women and people of color have been excluded from political power in a number of ways.”
Victoria Steele, a Democrat who hoped to challenge her district’s Republican incumbent for Congress but who lost in the primaries, was asked to run and said her loss had a lot to do with funding.
“Two Latina leaders came to me and suggested I run for Congress,” Steele said in an email interview. “However, when I approached party leaders for guidance they strongly tried to discourage me from running, telling me I didn’t have enough personal wealth to self-fund a multi-million dollar campaign, I didn’t have a wealthy network and they doubted I could raise enough money to be competitive with a Republican incumbent who already raised millions of dollars.”
According to Walsh, “It’s very easy in the cycle to just focus on the president. To feel like ‘OK, well, now we’ve made it!’ If [Clinton] does get elected, while that’s enormously significant to U.S. history and what it means to our democracy, it masks the reality of what’s happening down ballot.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 3, 1:10 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said Tammy Duckworth could become the first female U.S. senator from Illinois. The state elected Carol Moseley Braun in 1992.