Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on gender and American political institutions with a particular focus on how gender informs campaigns and the impact of gender diversity among elites in policy and political decisions, priorities and processes. She is the author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).
Kira Sanbonmatsu is professor of Political and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Her research interests include gender, race/ethnicity, political parties and American politics. She is the author of Where Women Run: Gender and Party in the American States (University of Michigan Press, 2010) and Democrats, Republicans, and the Politics of Women’s Place (University of Michigan Press, 2004), and the co-author of More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures (Oxford University Press, 2013). Her work has also appeared in journals such as Political Research Quarterly and Journal of Women, Politics, & Policy.
Susan J. Carroll is professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is co-author of More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to State Legislatures (Oxford University Press, 2013) and co-editor with Richard L. Fox of Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics (Fourth Edition, Cambridge University Press 2018). Earlier books include: Women as Candidates in American Politics (Second Edition, Indiana University Press, 1994); Women and American Politics: New Questions, New Directions (Oxford University Press, 2003); and The Impact of Women in Public Office(Indiana University Press, 2001). Carroll also has published numerous journal articles and book chapters focusing on women candidates, voters, elected officials, and political appointees in the United States.
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, an unprecedented number of women ran for and won election to Congress in the historic 2018 midterm elections. As a result, the percentage of women serving in the 116th Congress—23.7%—has reached a record high as has the number of women of color who are serving, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).
But women are far from parity within Congress. While the number of Democratic women increased as a result of the 2018 election, the number of Republican women declined. Women are nearly 40% of Democrats in Congress but fewer than 10% of Republicans. Moreover, President Trump’s recent attacks on four of the newly elected women—known as the Squad—provide further, sobering evidence of the race-based and gender-based challenges that women in Congress may confront.
Our recent book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018), offers unique insights into what it is like for women to run for and serve in Congress. We engage scholarly debates about whether and how descriptive and substantive representation are linked. But unlike most past work, which has largely relied on quantitative analyses of legislative behavior, we probe women’s experiences with qualitative methods. Relying on personal interviews with over three-fourths of the women serving in the 114thCongress, our book explores women legislators’ perceptions of both the challenges and opportunities they encounter. With our interviews, which span both parties and both chambers and reflect the racial diversity of women in Congress, we consider women legislators’ policy goals and priorities, as well as their policy influence and impact on the institution. We pay special attention to how the context of partisan polarization impacts legislative life and the ability of women to work across party lines.
One of the most striking aspects of the interview evidence is that women in Congress—across party lines—are deeply committed to bringing more women into the institution and see themselves as role models for women and girls in their districts and across the country. Indeed, some of the Democratic women we interviewed lamented the dearth of Republican women and expressed the view that Republican women did not have equal access to leadership positions within their party. Republican women like Jackie Walorski (R-IN) agreed there was more work to do within their party, but added: “I think there should be more [women] on both sides [of the aisle]…[E]very chance I have, whether I’m speaking to girls in high school or in civic groups, speaking to women, moms, I’m always talking about [the need for more women to get involved].” Representative Joyce Beatty (D-OH) captured a key reason why more diverse representation matters: “[Having more women of color in Congress] makes a difference when little African American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress.”
In part, it is the personal knowledge that women in Congress matter that drives their desire to see more women in the institution. Women in Congress bring distinct perspectives—multilayered, multifaceted perspectives—into the legislative process, putting overlooked issues on the agenda. Life experiences such as caregiving and motherhood as well as personal knowledge of sexism and discrimination can create new areas for policymaking or add dimensions to existing policy debates. And women advocate. As Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D- FL) told us, “There are just issues that would not have reached the top of the agenda without women there pushing to make sure.”
Because women are a large and heterogeneous group, women in Congress bring different gendered perspectives to the process. Throughout our study, we note the comprehensive ways that the intersection of race and gender can inform policymaking and process, including how the presence of women of color on committees can educate non-Hispanic White colleagues about communities of color. As Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) noted, “We [Black women] have our agenda which is very similar to women, all women, but then on top of that we have the unique perspective that we bring coming from the African American experience.” We document the passion that drives women legislators of color—many of whom are firsts in some respect, not only to make better policy but also to make Congress a better and more representative institution.
While women in Congress see themselves as role models and mentors and are cognizant of the opportunities made possible by being women, there are also challenges to navigating Congress as women. Many women noted the influential role of women in Congress, citing (at that time) Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) accomplishments and those of other women congressional leaders and observing dramatic improvements in women’s status over time. But equality is not yet at hand. Even being recognized by Capitol Hill security guards as a member of Congress can be a challenge. And newly elected women members sometimes find that gaining respect from colleagues, while automatic for men, can take effort for women—even in the U.S. Senate.
As Representative Dina Titus (D-NV) told us, “I think [women] have in common the fact that they have to overcome the obstacle of being a woman, whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican. There are obstacles that they all face, and that gives them a common bond.” Overcoming gender-based challenges inside the institution or on the campaign trail can provide the basis for camaraderie among women in Congress across party lines, and forging bipartisan bonds on Capitol Hill in the contemporary era is no small feat.