Much attention was paid to women’s political success across levels of office in 2018, when women ran for and won elected offices in record numbers. But women made history again in the 2020 election, albeit by smaller margins and to less fanfare. As emphasized in our 2018 report, the story of women’s political success is more complex than the records broken. This report analyzes women’s electoral success in 2020, both by and beyond the numbers, and puts it into historical context—with special attention to how 2020 compared to the historic election that preceded it.
This section details the numeric gains for women, with particular attention to differences with men, between parties, and among women of different racial and ethnic groups. The numbers show historic successes for women in election 2020, but they also reveal that gains for women were smaller overall than in 2018 and that success came for different groups of women. In particular, Republican women rebounded from a dismal year of decline in 2018 to run and win in record numbers in 2020. In contrast, Democratic women saw fewer gains in 2020 than in 2018, when they were entirely responsible for the surge in women’s political representation. These data demonstrate that the trend toward gender parity in political leadership is inconsistent and that evaluating progress for women requires attentiveness to differences across party, race and ethnicity, geography, and time.
Women broke records, but have not achieved parity with men in electoral politics.
- A record number of women ran for the U.S. Congress, but women remained less than 30% of candidates on primary ballots.
- While a record number of women were general election nominees for congressional and state legislative offices, they remained less than 36% of all nominees across these levels.
- A record number of women serve in Congress and in state legislatures in 2021, and women of color serve in record numbers in Congress and in state legislatures nationwide. However, while women are over 50% of the population, they remain less than one-third of elected officials at and above the state legislative level.
Republican women outpaced Democratic women’s electoral success in 2020, marking a partisan shift from election 2018. Republican women not only rebounded from losses in the previous election, but also achieved record levels of success in 2020 and officeholding in 2021. Still, they remain significantly outnumbered by Democratic women officeholders.
- As a result of the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic women achieved record levels of representation in the U.S. Congress, U.S. House, and in state legislatures nationwide, while the number of Republican women declined at each of those levels. In contrast, Republicans accounted for the majority of women’s U.S. House and state legislative gains in 2020, where they also reached record levels of representation.
- Republican women were 19 of 28 non-incumbent women winners of U.S. House contests in 2020, in comparison to being just one of 36 non-incumbent women winners in 2018.
- While Democratic women remained a majority of non-incumbent women winners of state legislative seats in 2020, Republican women were 40% of new women winners in 2020 state legislative contests, up from 24.5% in 2018.
- Even in a record-setting year for Republican women, Democratic women remained a majority of women candidates and nominees across levels of office, and in 2021 continue to significantly outnumber Republican women officeholders by at least two-to-one in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and in state legislatures.
In an election year when Kamala Harris was elected as the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian person to be Vice President, women of color made notable but modest gains at the legislative level.
- A record number of women of color served in the U.S. Congress, U.S. House, and state legislatures as a result of the 2020 election, though the gains from election 2020 were more modest than those from election 2018. The overwhelming majority of women of color legislators are Democrats.
- The first woman of color was elected to Congress from Missouri, and Washington state sent a Black woman to Congress for the first time.
- Three Korean-American women were elected to the U.S. House, collectively becoming the first Korean-American women to serve in Congress.
- As a result of the 2020 election, a record number of Republican women of color serve in the U.S. House, but no Republican woman of color has served in the U.S. Senate to date.
- As a result of Harris’ election as vice president, the number of women of color dropped from four to three in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate again has no Black women members.
Women outperformed men among non-incumbents in both primary and general elections for the U.S. House.
- Non-incumbent women candidates for the U.S. House won primary elections at higher rates than non-incumbent men overall and in both major parties.
- Non-incumbent Republican and Democratic women House nominees won general election contests at higher rates than their male counterparts.
- Women candidates won the majority of U.S. House seats that flipped from Democrat to Republican and all of the U.S. House seats – a smaller number – that flipped from Republican to Democrat in election 2020. In 2018, women were also responsible for the majority of flipped House seats, but in that year when the majority of flipped seats were from Republican to Democrat, women’s victories were especially consequential in changing House majority control from the Republican to Democratic Party.
In addition to the data presented here, see our full bank of data visualizations.
As a result of the 2020 election, the number of women serving in the U.S. Congress reached a new high.1 A record number of women filed for the U.S. House and Senate, and a record number of women won nomination and were elected to the U.S. House.2 Moreover, the number of female candidates who filed for the U.S. House increased by 22.5% from 2018 to 2020, while the number of male candidates decreased by 4.4%. This jump was smaller than 2018, when the number of women running for the U.S. House increased by 74.4% from 2016; men also lagged women in accounting for the growth of the congressional candidate pool in 2018.
As in 2018, the story of women’s gains as candidates and officeholders in 2020 is a partisan one. While a record number of Republican women filed as candidates for the U.S. House and Senate in 2020, the number of Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House only matched the previous high. The number of Republican women candidates for the U.S. House nearly doubled (+89.2%) from 2018 to 2020. This marks a reversal of trends from 2018, when the number of Democratic women who filed to run for the U.S. House exactly doubled from the previous election, while the number of Republican women House candidates increased by just 26%. Because Democratic women continue to outnumber Republican women candidates in congressional contests and there was no increase in Democratic women House candidates from 2018 to 2020, the overall increase in women’s House candidacies was notably smaller in 2020 (+22.5%) than it was between 2016 and 2018 (+74.4%).
The increase in women’s U.S. Senate candidacies was also smaller from 2018 to 2020 (+13.2%) than it was between 2016 and 2018 (+32.5%). And in 2020, while a record number of women ran for U.S. Senate, the number of women Senate nominees and winners fell short of the previous high. Democratic women saw a larger (+19.4%), though still modest, jump in Senate candidacies than Republican women (+4.5%), and only Republican women surpassed previous records for Senate nominations. In 2021, women’s Senate representation – overall and within each major party – is just short of previous highs.
Across parties, women still fell short of parity with men as congressional candidates, nominees, and winners in 2020. Women were less than one-third of candidates who filed to run for the U.S. House or Senate and were fewer than 36% of all nominees. Women were 27.4% of House winners and 20% of Senate winners. Republican women made up a smaller proportion of their party’s candidates, nominees, and winners for the U.S. House and a smaller proportion of their party’s candidates and nominees for the U.S. Senate than did Democratic women in 2020, with partisan disparities greatest among House nominees and winners.
The freshman class of women in the House of Representatives in the 117th Congress (2021-2023) is the second-largest ever, with 28 (9D, 19R) non-incumbent women elected in 2020.3 The largest freshman class of women emerged from the 2018 election, when 36 (35D, 1R) non-incumbent women were elected. The previous record for non-incumbent House women winners – 24 – was set in 1992, often called “The Year of the Woman.” Republicans make up over two-thirds of freshman House women in the 117th Congress, in stark contrast to the previous Congress when Republicans were outnumbered 35 to one in the freshman class of House women. As a result of the 2018 election, the total number of Republican women in the U.S. House actually dropped by ten (from 23 to 13), leading Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and others to describe Republican women’s representation as being at “crisis level.”
Non-incumbent Republican women’s success in election 2020 can be measured in multiple ways. In addition to dominating the freshman class of House women, Republican women were the majority of House winners who flipped seats for Republicans; of the 14 House seats that Republicans flipped from Democrat to Republican in the 2020 election, women won 11 – or 78.6% – and men won three.4 Republican women also increased as a share of all Republican non-incumbent House winners, from just 3.1% in 2018 to 38.8% in 2020. Finally, Republican non-incumbent women nominees for the U.S. House outperformed non-incumbent Republican men, Democratic men, and Democratic women.5
Democratic women non-incumbents fared worse than Republican women in election 2020, a year where Democrats lost more seats in the U.S. House than they gained. Still, Democratic women were 60% of all Democratic non-incumbent House winners and won all three House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2020. These gains were necessary to offset losses by Democratic women. All five women House incumbents who were defeated in the 2020 election were Democrats who had won House seats for the first time in 2018: Kendra Horn (D-OK), Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), Donna Shalala (D-FL), and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM). Four of these five women incumbents were defeated by Republican women. By comparison, all five women House incumbents who were defeated in the 2018 election were Republicans, and three were defeated by Democratic women.
In U.S. Senate contests, just one non-incumbent woman – a Republican – was elected in 2020. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who previously served in the U.S. House, won an open-seat contest to become the first woman to ever represent Wyoming in the U.S. Senate. Lummis was one of four non-incumbent Republicans elected to the Senate in 2020. In contrast, all five non-incumbent Democrats who won Senate seats in 2020 were men; none of the 10 Democratic non-incumbent women Senate nominees were successful. Both incumbent women senators defeated in the 2020 election were Republicans: Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Martha McSally (R-AZ). In 2018, both incumbent women senators defeated were Democrats.
As a result of the 2020 election, the number of women in the U.S. Senate dropped by two (from 26 to 24).6 Both Democratic and Republican women in the Senate saw a net loss of one. From the 116th to the 117th Congress, the number of Republican women in the U.S. House increased by 17 (from 13 to 30), while the number of Democratic women increased by one (from 88 to 89).7 Interestingly, the net gain in the number of women in the U.S. House as a result of the 2020 election – 18 – matches the net gain in the number of House women as a result of election 2018, an election cycle much more frequently touted as an exceptional year for women’s House gains.8
In March 2021, two Democratic women in the House – Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Deb Haaland (D-NM) – resigned their seats in order to join the Biden-Harris cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary of the Interior, respectively. Their departures reverse the net gain in House Democratic women members since the 116th Congress, and reduce the net gains for women of color in Congress and in the U.S. House between 2020 and 2021.
As of March 19, 2021, women are 26.4% of the members of the 117th Congress, including 117 (87D, 30R) women in the U.S. House and 24 (16D, 8R) women in the U.S. Senate.9 This does not include Julia Letlow (R-LA), who won a special election to the U.S. House on March 20, 2021, but was not yet sworn in at the time of publication.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity
As a result of the 2020 election, a record number (51) of women of color served in Congress. The number of women of color in the U.S. House hit record high of 48, up from the 44 women of color who served in the 116th Congress.10 With the recent departure of Representatives Fudge (D-OH) and Haaland (D-NM) to serve in the Biden-Harris cabinet, the number of women of color has dropped to 49 in Congress and 46 in the U.S. House, still greater than any time before 2021. In contrast, the number of women of color in the U.S. Senate dropped by one as a result of the 2020 election. With Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) ascendence to the vice presidency, the number of women of color went from four to three. With Harris’ departure, no Black women serve in the U.S. Senate in the 117th Congress. Harris was just the second Black woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate.
As of March 19, 2021, women of color are 47.1% of Democratic women members and 39.3% of all women members of the U.S. House. They are 44.1% of Democratic members of color and 40.7% of all members of color serving in U.S. House. Women of color are a smaller proportion of senators and Republicans in 2021.11
A record number of women of color ran for the U.S. House and Senate, and a record number of women of color were nominees for the U.S. House in 2020. The 2020 election also marked record highs for women of color House and Senate candidates and House nominees in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Women of color were 42.5% of women House candidates and 38.6% of women House nominees in 2020. The racial and ethnic diversity among women running for the U.S. Senate was lower, however; 31.7% of women Senate candidates and just three of 21 (14.3%) women Senate nominees were women of color. With none of the incumbent women of color senators up for re-election in 2020, all three nominees were non-incumbents and none were successful.
Importantly, the gains for women of color should be evaluated and celebrated within distinct racial and ethnic groups instead of in aggregated counts that mask the rich diversity of women candidates and officeholders. A record number of Black women, Latinas, Asian or Pacific Islander women, and Native American women ran for the U.S. House in 2020, and a record number of Black, Latina, and Native American women were House nominees in November. A record number of Black women, Latinas, and Native American women ran for the U.S. Senate, and Paulette Jordan (D-SD) became the first Native American woman nominee for the U.S. Senate that we are aware of since the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) began keeping candidate race identification data in 2004. As a result of the 2020 election, representation reached a record high for:
- Black women in the U.S. House (25)
- Latinas in the U.S. House (13) and U.S. Congress (14)
- Asian or Pacific Islander women in the U.S. House (8)
- Native American women in the U.S. House (2)
As noted above, the number of Black women has since declined by one to 24 with the departure of Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The number of women who identify as Native American has dropped to one due to the departure of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) to become Secretary of the Interior.12
Because CAWP only began including Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) among its options for candidate and officeholder self-identification in 2019, this data is not comparable historically. However, it is notable that at least 16 (11D, 5R) MENA women ran for Congress in 2020. Just one – incumbent Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) – was successful. Two Middle Eastern women – Tlaib and Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL) – served in the 116th Congress. Shalala was defeated in her bid for re-election.
Among the 72 non-incumbent women of color nominees for the U.S. House in 2020, eight (11.1%) were successful and 64 (88.9%) were defeated. In 2018, a record 14 new women of color were elected to the U.S. House, all Democrats. In contrast, the eight new women of color elected in 2020 are split equally between parties. The four new Republican women of color in the U.S. House joined the sole Republican woman of color, Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), who has served in the House since 2011. The current number (5) of Republican women of color in the U.S. House (and in the U.S. Congress) is a record high. No Republican woman of color has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate.
Included among the eight new women of color members of the U.S. House are:13
- 3 (3D) Black women, including the first Black woman sent to Congress from Washington – Representative Marilyn Strickland (D-WA), who also identifies as Korean-American – and the first Black woman and woman of color sent to Congress from Missouri – Representative Cori Bush (D-MO);
- 3 (1D, 2R) Latinas, including Representative Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), who identifies as both Latina and white; and
- 3 (1D, 2R) Asian women, all of whom are the first Korean-American women to serve in the U.S. Congress. Young Kim (R-CA) and Michelle Steel (R-CA) are also the first Republican congresswomen to identify as Asian or Pacific Islander since Pat Saiki (R-HI) left the U.S. House in 1991. Representative Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) is multi-racial, identifying as both Black and Korean-American.
Of the eight new women of color elected to the 117th Congress, three (37.5%) were elected in majority-white districts.14 By comparison, just nine of 40 (22.5%) incumbent women of color who won in 2020 were elected in majority-white districts. Women of color elected for the first time in 2018 were also more likely than those women of color who came before them to be elected outside of majority-minority districts, indicating that 2020 follows in this trend. The continued growth in the diversity of districts where women of color run and win counters biased notions that women of color cannot win in majority-white electorates.
Three incumbent congresswomen of color were unsuccessful in their bids for re-election: Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), who is Latina, Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL), who identifies as Middle Eastern (Lebanese), and Representative Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM), who is Latina. Combined with Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who did not run for re-election to the U.S. House, the House lost four Democratic women of color incumbents and gained four new Democratic women of color, thus yielding no new record for the total number of Democratic women of color in the House and – as noted above – a drop of Democratic women of color in the Senate and in Congress overall as a result of election 2020. Since the start of the 117th Congress, the number of Democratic women of color has dropped by two in Congress and in the U.S. House due to the departures of Representatives Fudge (D-OH) and Haaland (D-NM).
As of 2021, 25 states have never sent a woman of color to either chamber of Congress, including 46 states that have never sent a woman of color to the U.S. Senate and 26 states that have never sent a woman of color to the U.S. House.
Differences by State
The number of women in states’ congressional delegations (U.S. House and Senate) went up in 16 states, went down in three states, and stayed the same in 20 states as a result of the 2020 election.15 Democratic women gained seats in five states, but lost seats in six states.16 In contrast, Republican women gained seats in 14 states and lost seats in just two states as a result of election 2020. By comparison, Democratic women gained seats in 19 states’ congressional delegations and just one state increased its number of Republican women in Congress as a result of election 2018. Vermont remains the only state that has never sent a woman of any party to Congress.
A record number of women were state legislative nominees in 2020 and a record number of women serve in state legislatures in 2021.17 However, the increase in women state legislative nominees and officeholders was very small in comparison to gains in 2018. While the number of women nominees for state legislative office increased by 29% from 2016 to 2018 (the largest percentage increase in women’s state legislative nominations for at least two decades), the number of women nominees for state legislative office increased by less than one percent from 2018 to 2020. The number of Republican women state legislative nominees rose by 11% compared to 2018, while Democratic women’s nominations fell by nearly four percent from 2018 to 2020. This gain is consistent for Republican women, who saw an increase of about 10% in state legislative nominees from 2016 to 2018. In contrast, the number of Democratic women state legislative nominees rose by 39% in 2018 compared to 2016, partially explaining why meeting or surpassing those counts proved more difficult in election 2020.
Women continued to fall short of parity with men as state legislative nominees in 2020. Women were 35.5% of all state legislative nominees in 2020, up slightly from 33.7% in election 2018.18 But Democratic women continued to inch closer to parity with men among their party’s nominees; in 2020, women were 47.7% of Democratic state legislative nominees nationwide, up from 45.1% in 2018. Republican women, however, were less than one-quarter (23.1%) of all Republican state legislative nominees in 2020, up from 20.9% in 2018. Importantly, Democratic women were the majority (53%) of non-incumbent Democratic winners of state legislative seats in both 2018 and 2020, indicating the key role they play in expanding Democratic representation. In 2020, Republican women were 23.6% of non-incumbent Republican winners of state legislative seats, up from 19.5% in 2018.
From Election Day 2020 to January 19, 2021 – when the last of the states swore in state legislators – the number of women state legislators increased by 116 nationwide; they went from holding 29.3% to 30.8% of state legislative seats. The net gain in women’s state legislative representation was about twice that size as a result of the 2018 election, when the number of women state legislators went up by 237. But as with congressional trends, the partisan story of women’s state legislative gains in election 2020 is notably different than 2018. From 2020 to 2021, both Democratic and Republican women saw modest gains in their state legislative representation, with Republican women seeing a larger net gain (+74) than their Democratic counterparts (+43). From 2018 to 2019, women in the Democratic Party increased their overall representation in state legislatures by almost 300 seats, while Republican women saw their representation in state legislatures decline by nearly 50 seats.
1,881 of 3,446 (54.6%) women state legislative nominees won seats in 2020, including 24.6% of non-incumbent women nominees. Consistent with the partisan trends, Republican women fared slightly better than Democratic women nominees overall, including winning at a higher rate than Democratic women among both incumbents and non-incumbents.
As of March 2021, women are 30.9% of all state legislators nationwide, including 18.8% of Republican and 45.7% of Democratic state legislators.19 This is a record high for women’s state legislative representation. Of all women serving in state legislatures as of March 2021, 66.3% are Democrats and 32.8% are Republicans, representing a slight narrowing of the partisan gap in women’s state legislative representation; before election 2020, 67.8% of women state legislators were Democrats and 31.1% were Republicans.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity
As a result of the 2020 election, a record number of women of color serve in state legislatures in 2021. More specifically, a record number of Black, Latina, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Native American women serve in state legislatures nationwide in 2021. The number of Democratic women of color state legislators is also at a record high. Because we rely on state legislators for racial and ethnic self-identification, there remain 236 women state legislators for whom race is unavailable as of March 2021. Our current counts of women of color state legislators also include Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) women, a category that CAWP added in 2019. Find the most updated data on CAWP’s fact sheet on women of color in elective office.
Differences by State
The number of women in state legislatures (Houses and Senates) went up in 31 states, down in 11 states, and stayed the same in 8 states between 2020 and 2021.20 Republican women’s representation increased in 27 state legislatures from 2020 to 2021 and Democratic women gained seats in 25 states. Democratic women saw a drop in state legislative representation in 15 states from 2020 to 2021 and Republican women’s state legislative representation dropped in ten states as a result of election 2020. These partisan trends are far less stark than what happened at the state legislative level as a result of election 2018. From 2018 to 2019, Democratic women’s representation increased in 40 state legislatures and decreased in five state legislatures, while Republican women gained seats in only 15 states and lost seats in 22 states.21
In 2019, Nevada became the first state in U.S. history whose state legislature reached parity in women’s and men’s representation. The 2020 election increased women’s majority in the Nevada legislature; today, women are 60.3% of all Nevada state legislators. However, Nevada remains the only state to achieve this milestone. As of March 2021, three state legislative chambers – the Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico state houses – are majority-women. In addition, women currently hold exactly 50% of seats in the Arizona State Senate, Oregon State House, and Rhode Island State Senate.