When Ceilings Break for Women in Politics, Walls Still Stand

With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

As the country celebrates the ceilings being broken in this year’s presidential election, it’s important not to forget the brick walls that continue to stand in the way of women’s political progress at all levels.

The gravity of this week’s formal nomination of the first woman candidate for president was not lost on those in the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia. As each state cast their delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention, many delegates mentioned the history being made to put a woman on the top of the presidential ballot.

The vote was kicked off by the first woman elected to the United States Senate in her own right, Barbara Mikulski, who recalled the progress women have made when she said, “It is with a full heart that I am here today to nominate Hillary Clinton as the first woman president.” But Senator Mikulski also reminded those in the arena and at home that the work to elect women to political office does not stop at the Oval Office door. “It was the Founding Mothers who said, ‘Do not forget the ladies or they will foment a revolution!'” she recalled, adding that “they started the job, but we’re going to keep it going.”

Jerry Emmett, 102-year old delegate, cast Arizona’s votes for Clinton with similar joy, celebrating the history made within her own lifetime – from women winning the right to vote when she was just six years old to seeing a woman poised to sit in the White House that suffragists picketed nearly one hundred years ago.

 Just five hours before Clinton was nominated, I sat at a lunch that celebrated inspiring women and the historic moment we are in. But the speakers, all of who know too well the challenges that have and continue to face women running for and winning office, warned against complacency. Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Michele Lujan Grisham (D-NM) noted that women remain underrepresented in government; women are under one-quarter of elected officials at all levels of office in the United States. Importantly, they talked about why that matters, sharing their own stories from the trenches on why having women at all tables of governance makes a difference to policy debates and outcomes.

The lunch also highlighted the many organizations working to recruit, train, and support women candidates for office. Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), noted the work that our organization has been doing to promote women’s political advancement for 45 years. But she also noted, “You’d think with all of these fabulous organizations in the room doing such good work, we would be closer to gender parity.” Instead, amidst the history being made by women in politics at all levels of office over the past 45 years, there have been some quite sturdy walls that women have come up against.

The numbers tell part of the story. Since 1971, the number of women in Congress has increased from 15 to 104. However, since 1992, the largest net increase in the number of women in Congress in any single election cycle has been ten. When women remain below 20 percent of all congressional officeholders, single-digit gains are a slow way to parity. At the state legislative level, the plateau in women’s representation has been even starker. Women surpassed 20 percent of all state legislators after the 1992 elections, but have not crossed the 25 percent mark in the 24 years since then. Today, six women serve as governors, down from a high of nine serving simultaneously in both 2004 and 2007.

Turning to the numbers in the 2016 election, the history being made by a woman at the top of the ticket may not be matched by the success of women down-ballot. The loss of 13 women in the U.S. Congress – whether due to retirement, bids for other offices, or primary defeats – will present challenges to seeing any significant increase in women’s representation for the 115th Congress. We will lose one woman governor in 2016, as Maggie Hassan (D-NH) runs for the U.S. Senate, and just four women remain in the hunt for open seat nominations for governor this year. Short story: 2016 will likely not be a record-breaking year down-ballot, even as we celebrate broken barriers at the top.

The many organizations that gathered at yesterday’s luncheon have done the work to better understand why women are hitting walls of representation. From barriers to recruitment to challenges in financial and support infrastructures once they make the decision to run, women still face a campaign terrain that differs from their male counterparts. They also make the decision to run differently than men, less likely to be self-starters and more likely to have to be convinced that the challenges of running for office are worth the policy outcomes they can influence once elected.

Breaking down these walls, then, requires sustained effort on multiple fronts. In recruitment, the case needs to be made to women that the benefits of public service are worth the costs. Moreover, the recruiters – many of whom are still men–need to identify and tap the potential of women to serve. But asking women to run for office is not enough; once they make the decision to jump into the fray, they need a support infrastructure that can sustain them through Election Day. Training programs help before or after they declare their candidacy, providing best tips and tools for running a successful campaign and confronting the distinct challenges women face, but support is also necessary in the form of money, time, and standing up and speaking out for women candidates when they are treated unfairly.

The Democratic women of the U.S. Senate stood at the DNC podium together tonight. There are 14 of them in office today. Like the 62 Democratic women who took to the stage on Tuesday, they were celebrating women’s political progress. But in standing there together, they also represented the progress left to make.

That progress will come with work–and that work will continue beyond 2016.


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.