Looking Ahead

What Women’s Success Means for Legislative Outcomes

A fundamental argument for promoting gender parity in political leadership relies on democratic tenets of fairness and legitimacy.1 More specifically, increasing women’s representation is not only important to remedying existing inequality of influence, but also strengthens the legitimacy – both real and perceived – of governing bodies that are tasked with representing the full diversity of their constituents. Even at the electoral stage, diversifying the candidate pool ensures that differences in identities and lived experiences are reflected in campaign competition and political debates. Greater representation of women on ballots and among elected leaders can also enhance feelings of political efficacy and levels of political engagement among individuals from politically marginalized groups, especially women.2 By demonstrating that women’s political leadership is possible, women candidates and officeholders challenge beliefs that political institutions are inaccessible to women (or, more broadly, to historically excluded groups) and contest perceptions that women’s capabilities are incompatible with officeholding.3 The success of women, including the full diversity of women candidates and winners, in 2020 legislative elections has the potential to yield these democratic and symbolic effects. 

But the case for and questions about increasing women’s political representation often center on more concrete legislative outcomes. The most cited findings on women’s substantive representation, for example, point to: women officeholders’ prioritization of issues that disproportionately affect women, children, and families; their likelihood of doing more work than their male counterparts on behalf of their constituents; and women’s heightened levels of legislative effectiveness.4 CAWP’s research on women in the 114th Congress reveals the ways in which women’s distinct and diverse perspectives and experiences influence not only policy outcomes but also policy processes and deliberation.5 In focusing on these measures of women’s difference, it is easy to fall into the trap that women as a group need to bring something distinct, and often better, to governing in order to justify their inclusion. Relatedly, in an effort to isolate the distinct impact of women, scholars, practitioners, and media too often present conclusions as universalities to provide a simpler assessment of what difference it will make to elect more women to office.

Research findings on the relationship between women’s descriptive and substantive (or even symbolic) representation come with many caveats and are sometimes limited – whether in substance or application – to characterizing women in their totality instead of in their diversity. The contrast in partisan outcomes among women in elections 2018 and 2020 clearly illustrate the need for nuance in evaluating gender differences in officeholder behavior. Expecting that the policy influence and contributions, particularly on policy, from the Democratic women elected in 2018 will match the effects of a new class of Republican women officeholders in 2021 ignores the importance of partisanship as a key identity that simultaneously (with gender) shapes members’ perspectives, priorities, and behaviors. The overt contrasts to Democratic women officeholders touted by Republican women on the campaign trail have already been borne out in policy debates in legislative votes in the 117th Congress. Racial, class, professional, and even generational backgrounds should also inform our expectations for and evaluations of women’s legislative behavior, just as they do in our expectations of men. Accepting the multi-layered identities with which women come to their representational roles yields more complex and less universal, but arguably more accurate, conclusions about the impact of women on legislative institutions, processes, and outcomes.

We must take note that the burden of proof has too often fallen on women and people of color to justify disruption of the status quo in descriptive representation instead of falling on white men to justify its maintenance. While rejecting universalities might complicate the case we make for increasing women’s political representation, it can also expand it in ways that embrace the full diversity of women’s perspectives, experiences, and influence. As we evaluate the influence of women legislators in 2021 and beyond, it is important that we are attentive to the differences among them, the potential sites for shared impact, and the risk of holding women to higher standards than men to bring more, distinct, or even “better” outcomes as a result of their legislative service.

What to Watch for in Future Elections

Partisan Momentum in Closing the Gender Gap in Candidacy and Officeholding

Will the increase in Republican women’s candidacies and their corresponding success in reaching new highs in legislative representation continue beyond the 2020 election cycle? And will Democratic women increase their pace of gains in upcoming elections? The political context of 2022 will matter in determining the degree of momentum for women’s success in either party. Midterm elections have most commonly favored the party that is not in power at the presidential level, suggesting that Republican women might be able to capitalize on another election favorable to their party at the congressional and state legislative levels. Of course, this relies on conventional electoral patterns, which have been challenged in recent elections – including in 2020. Even if conventional wisdom held true, success for Republican women in 2022 would require continued – and arguably growing – support for them in candidate recruitment and at the earliest stages of electoral competition. This has been absent in previous elections where Republicans were expected to and did make large gains without seeing much payoff for women specifically; in 2010, for example, women were just over 10% of 87 non-incumbent Republican House winners. They were 38.8% of 49 non-incumbent Republican winners in 2020.

Women’s Legislative Vulnerability

Many of the gains by women in elections 2018 and 2020 relied on their success in especially competitive legislative districts. Of the 36 non-incumbent women House winners in 2018, 21 (58.3%) flipped seats from Republican to Democrat. Likewise, 14 of 28 (50%) of non-incumbent women House winners in 2020 flipped their seats, including 11 women who flipped seats from Democrat to Republican and three women who flipped seats from Republican to Democrat. In both cycles, women were responsible for more flipped House seats than men. These successes reveal women’s capacity to win in the most competitive districts, reaffirming their electoral viability and combating concerns that being a woman is an electoral liability. However, winning in the most competitive districts also means that women will continue to face tough re-election contests. That enhanced vulnerability was evident in election 2020, when five of the freshman Democratic women who flipped House seats in election 2018 lost bids for re-election to a second term. In 2022, the 14 women who flipped House seats in 2020, including 11 new Republican women members, will likely face similarly competitive contests to remain in office.

Intersectional Measures of Electoral Experience and Success

As the racial and ethnic diversity of women candidates and officeholders increases, progress is neither inevitable nor consistent. If the success of Republican women of color in 2020 continues to grow in future cycles, the gains for women of color would be less reliant on the Democratic Party’s success. Success for women of color at one level should also not come at a cost to representation at other levels. But the particularly low representation of women of color in some offices, especially when analyzed within specific racial groups, has created instances where this result feels especially acute. Most notably, the ascendance of Vice President Kamala Harris left a void for Black women in the U.S. Senate. In the U.S. House, the appointment of Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior cut the representation of Native American women in Congress by half. These cases show the value of women of color’s congressional representation as a potential path to higher office, but they also reinforce the need to increase the number of and racial diversity among women across levels of office to prevent negative ramifications of otherwise positive progress. Losses and retirements are also acute within groups that are especially underrepresented in Congress. For example, the defeat of Representative Mia Love (R-UT) in 2018 eliminated any representation for Black women in the Republican Party in Congress, and her loss tied with the retirement of Latina Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) meant that the total number of women of color Republicans was down to one in the 116th Congress.

As noted in CAWP’s report on women in election 2018, assessing progress for women in electoral politics means investigating more specifically the challenges and opportunities faced by distinct groups of women without reinforcing binary categories of whiteness (white/non-white). Recognizing and better understanding differences in candidate emergence, experiences, and success for women in specific racial and ethnic groups is essential to increasing the full diversity of women in candidate pools and legislatures. Researchers and advocates have taken on this task and will continue to provide insights and strategies that can be applied in U.S. elections. CAWP has also recently funded intersectional research to identify and address barriers and opportunities to women’s political representation, with the promise of more findings that will further reveal the distinct conditions that will enhance success for women of different groups.