“Hey mom, when are we going to go to this place?” she asked Mace, who had just won re-election to the State House.
The only non-incumbent woman elected to the Senate is a Republican: former Wyoming MP Cynthia Lummis.
There will be at least six new women of color in Congress – four Democrats and two Republicans – including Democrat Cori Bush, who will be Missouri’s first black Congresswoman, and Nikema Williams, who was elected to the seat of late John Lewis in Georgia. Based on the races CNN called, there will be at least two more women of color overall than at the 116th Congress, a total of 50 at the 117th Congress.
But the majority of the 24 non-incumbent women who will join Congress in January are whites, including 13 Republicans and five Democrats. At least 91 white women will attend the 117th Congress, up from 79 this year.
The success of the GOP women in the house
The upward trend in women across the house is a bipartisan story. Democratic women were largely responsible for turning the house around in 2018, setting a new record with the election of 35 non-reigning women. However, this year Republican women have made significant gains. Having elected only one new Republican woman to the House in the medium term, Republicans have elected at least 15 non-incumbent women this year.
That means the number of Republican women in the house will at least double. (Only 13 women are currently attending the House GOP conference, two of whom were not running for re-election.) Democrats add nine new women, which can make up for the losses they lost to defeat and retirement and their numbers increased to 89 for the time being.
“Republican women will still be extremely underrepresented,” said Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics. “They really made up for the losses this year,” she added, noting that this time around two years ago there were 23 GOP women in attendance.
While Democratic women have long been supported by the abortion rights group’s EMILY list, which stands for “Early Money is Like Yeast,” Republicans lacked a comparable infrastructure to invest in female candidates. There was also ideological opposition to playing in primaries, particularly in ways that would incite identity politics.
That attitude, at least, began to change after 2018, when New York MP Elise Stefanik, who had recruited more than 100 women to serve as the recruiting manager for the House’s GOP campaign, publicly sounded the alarm only to see one of them win. She restarted her leadership PAC to play in primaries and help women in what the chairman of the Republican National Congress Committee called a “mistake” at the time. Though the campaign committee is still not in the primary, its leadership acknowledged that it must be better to choose different candidates – gathering behind another woman, Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, as head of 2020 recruitment – and now proud female candidates to apply for success this year. By far the biggest reason for this success, however, is that more Republican women raised their hands to run than ever before – also because they saw what Democratic women did in 2018 – and more of them won primaries, traditionally the biggest hurdle was.
“Women across the country watched other women before they were successful and found, ‘Hey, I can do it,'” said Ashley Hinson, Iowa GOP MP elected Democratic MP Abby Finkenauer, one of the last week Women who flipped a district in 2018.
“It was the perfect storm. We had competitive seats to win and we had incredible women in these districts with prior legislative experience and who knew how to put a campaign together,” said Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW (or choose Value in Women) PAC, which has been helping elect GOP women to Congress since 1997.
Just like Democratic women in 2018, Republican women this year were well positioned to benefit from a favorable environment. “The only way that could have happened was if it was a better than expected year for the Republicans, right, and I think it was,” said Dittmar of the profits GOP women could make.
“It is deeply humbling to be the first Republican to be elected to Congress in the state of South Carolina,” said Mace. “It reminds me that democratic women do not have a monopoly on breaking glass ceilings.”
New voices in Congress
Even if women break records in Congress, they will likely represent just over a quarter of the legislature. Obstacles remain – both for women in running and in winning.
Female candidates often receive questions that their male colleagues don’t – for example, who is looking after their children. For Hinson, knocking outside in her Iowa district, it was a moment to ponder why she was running in the first place. “The lady at the door thought I should be home with my kids. And I was basically like, ‘Well, I’ll give them a good example.'”
The women elected agree that the perspectives they bring to Congress are wanted – and needed.
“They picked me this time, they know I’m a mom, I drive a minivan, you know, we have normal lives here in Iowa,” said Hinson, a state official and former journalist who believes her communication skills help they will be in Congress.
Elected MP Carolyn Bourdeaux, the only Democrat to flip a GOP-held contest district so far this year, won in the suburbs of northeast Atlanta, now the epicenter of the political battlefield, with the Senate majority from two Senate seats depends on Georgia.
Bourdeaux, professor and former Georgia Senate budget director, first ran two years ago and received 433 fewer votes than the GOP incumbent who chose not to run in 2020. “A lot of people here didn’t even know there were Democrats in their neighborhood,” she said of the foundations that this first race laid.
“Many women were very excited about Donald Trump and their concerns about the direction of the country and the loss of truly fundamental rights – reproductive rights – that were suddenly on the ballot in the way it was.” I think it was helpful to be a woman to speak to on these issues, “said Bourdeaux.
Mace, the Republican from South Carolina is on the other end of the political spectrum, but she, too, has a keen interest in bringing her perspective into the house.
After dropping out of high school, she worked as a waitress in a waffle house. In 1996, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in a decision requiring the Virginia Military Institute, a government-funded school, to accept women. “That decision literally changed my life,” said Mace, the first woman to graduate from the citadel.
“The freshman year at the Citadel was like a race for Congress,” she said, noting the challenges and importance of both achievements – and the way gender influenced their experience.
“I mean, you can be tough, but you can’t be a BITCH, can you? There’s a limit to being a candidate that you can only be that tough before you cross that line and people start judging you differently.” “
As a state legislature, Mace made the headlines for speaking publicly about her own experiences with rape when she advocated changing an anti-abortion policy that would include exemptions for rape and incest.
“The ability to stand up to members of your own party, even if it is a leadership, is more important than ever to voters,” Mace said.
Many of the Republican women who won this year were in competitive districts. So far, Republicans have moved eight Democratic-held seats, and women have taken all but one of those victories, according to CNN forecasts. That means they will likely face difficult re-elections in the future, possibly against democratic women.
This worries Conway of VIEW PAC, who fears that Democratic and Republican women will rule each other out in the most competitive places every two years. “The whole idea of having ‘girl seats’ doesn’t get us any closer to parity,” she said.
A record of 643 women ran for Congress in 2020 – 583 for the House and 60 for the Senate. That is twice as many women as in 2016, although there are not yet twice as many seats.
This is in part because more women are running for office and are also competing against each other more often, both in primary elections and in general elections. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women competed in 17 general elections in the House and Senate in 2016. In 2020 there were 51 races in which women challenged each other.
Traditionally, the surest way for Republican women to maintain and expand their ranks has been to get more women in safe seats. At least five women won this year with Nathan L. Gonzales, a CNN employee, on seats classified as Solid Republican by Inside Elections.
The answer? Encourage even more women to run.
“I’ve had texts from other women who are interested in running here in Iowa since last week’s elections,” said Hinson, praising the support she received from other women in the elected office and from external groups such as Winning for Women and VIEW PAC, which, due to the pandemic, was hosting regular Zoom calls with all of its endorsed candidates so they could get to know each other. (Hinson will continue to meet her new colleagues virtually, as a positive Covid-19 test this week in Washington, DC, prevents them from personalizing new members.)
But helping one another may not always be taken for granted, some said. “Women are far worse than their male counterparts towards other women,” said Mace, reflecting on her experiences in the citadel, in business and in politics. “Women don’t want other women to be successful.”
“I feel like it’s gotten better over the years, but I see it most of the time, and it’s true on both sides of the aisle. That’s why I always encourage women to run.”