Executive Summary

2020 marked the historic election of Vice President Kamala Harris as the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to be vice president. But women’s political success in 2020 was not limited to the presidential level. After a record year for women in election 2018, the 2020 election marked continued progress for women in waging candidacies and winning elections at the congressional and state legislative levels. Unlike the historic victories for Democratic women in 2018, women’s legislative gains in 2020 were concentrated among Republicans. After a year of decline in representation across levels of office as a result of election 2018, Republican women rebounded in 2020 elections to reach new highs in legislative representation in 2021. Still, they continue to be the minority of women and of Republican legislators.

Measuring women’s electoral success means placing 2020 outcomes into historical and contemporary context. That is the work of this report. In addition to breaking down 2020 congressional and state legislative data by gender, race, and party and providing specific comparisons to the 2018 election, this report evaluates progress for women in electoral politics by looking beyond the numbers. The 2020 election reveals – via candidate paths to office and strategies for success – both maintenance and disruption of the gender and intersectional dynamics that have historically contributed to women’s political underrepresentation.

2020 was a record year for women’s legislative candidacies and success.

  • A record number of women ran for the U.S. Congress and were general election nominees for congressional and state legislative offices in 2020, and a record number of women serve in Congress and in state legislatures in 2021. However, they have not achieved parity with men in candidate pools and among officeholders.
  • A record number of women of color ran for the U.S. Congress and were general election congressional nominees in 2020, and a record number of women of color serve in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures in 2021, including record numbers of: Black, Latina, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Native American women congressional candidates; Black, Latina, and Native American women congressional nominees; and Black, Latina, Asian or Pacific Islander, and Native American women congressional and state legislative officeholders. Despite increases in the number of Republican women of color running and winning, the overwhelming majority of women of color legislators are Democrats.

Understanding the gender story of 2020 requires evaluating it within the context of 2018.

  • The gains for women in election 2018 were concentrated among Democratic women at every level of office, while the number of Republican women declined in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures nationwide, leading some Republican women leaders and activists to define the crisis of Republican women’s underrepresentation immediately after the 2018 election.
  • Republican women made up for 2018 losses in election 2020, and they were responsible for more of the increase in women candidates, nominees, and officeholders in election 2020 than were Democrats.
  • In 2020 U.S. House contests, Republican women won the majority of seats that flipped from Democrat to Republican, narrowing the margin of Democratic control. In 2018, women won the majority of House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat, which was especially consequential in changing House majority control from the Republican to Democratic Party.
  • In addition to responding to the underrepresentation and 2018 losses, Republican women candidates in 2020 utilized the language of urgency and threat – including perceived threats to President Trump and his agenda by Democrats elected in 2018 – in outlining their motivation to run for office. In 2018, Democratic women were more likely than Republican women to use this language – citing perceived threats of President Trump and Republicans’ legislative control – to describe what motivated them to run.
  • Many Republican women candidates in 2020 presented themselves in direct contrast and opposition to Democratic women, especially progressive women of color who first won office in 2018.
  • Despite the Republican rebound, Democratic women remained a majority of women candidates and nominees across levels of office, and in 2021 they 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 2020, women candidates contributed to reimagining candidacy and proved that they are not monolithic, while some of their strategies revealed persistent gender and intersectional biases in electoral politics.

  • Women running in 2020 embraced gender and intersectional identities as electoral assets instead of hurdles to overcome en route to Election Day, emphasizing the importance of diverse representation.
  • Women candidates also found ways to communicate toughness in less stereotypically masculine ways, including sharing stories of overcoming personal adversity – including gender and racial discrimination – as a sign of strength and resilience.
  • At the same time, some women candidates continued to adopt or co-opt stereotypically masculine imagery and rhetoric to prove masculine credentials for officeholding.
  • In presenting themselves in contrast to Democratic incumbent women officeholders, Republican women provided a clear reminder that women are not monolithic in their political beliefs, positions, or priorities. Beyond highlighting substantive policy contrasts, however, the targeting of freshman women of color by Republicans both capitalized upon and reinforced gendered and racialized tropes as a strategy to achieve electoral advantage.