Ten Steps Closer to Parity: Wins for Women in 2021

From historic appointments to record-breaking elections, women reached new milestones at every level of government this year.

Clockwise from top left: Marilyn Strickland; Deb Haaland; Kamala Harris; Michelle Wu; and Kathy Hochul.

In just two years, the pandemic has threatened decades worth of progress towards gender equality. As of December 2020, women suffered a net loss of over 5 million jobs due to COVID-19; in 2021, one in three women reported that they may end up downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely if conditions don’t improve in the United States. 

Worldwide, changes in employment patterns and social service disruptions have enabled a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women to take root. According to the World Economic Forum, the average time it will take for the global gender gap to close has grown from 99.5 to 135.6 years because of COVID-19. 

The gendered impacts of the pandemic help to show that progress for women is difficult to sustain when structural inequalities are present. In order to remedy this, women need to be at the center of pandemic response and recovery efforts; advancing women’s political leadership is a step in the right direction

While the United States has a long way to go to achieve intersectional, gender-balanced governance, progress was still made in 2021. From historic appointments to record-breaking elections, women reached new milestones at every level of government this year. So as difficult as it may be to find cause to celebrate in challenging times, here are 10 reasons to have hope for a more gender-inclusive future. 

1. Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in.

On Jan. 20, Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore in the U.S.’s first woman vice president, Kamala Harris. (Screenshot from CNN)

Inauguration Day 2021 marked a crucial moment in American history. Never before have two women stood before the public to administer and swear to the oath of office. On one side stood Justice Sonia Sotomayor: the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice; on the other stood Vice President-elect Kamala Harris: the first woman, Black woman, and South Asian to hold the role. 

This milestone rests on a long history of women vying for the right to vote and be elected. A century after the first women secured the right to vote and 172 years after Lucretia Mott ran for the vice presidency, Kamala Harris broke the glass ceiling and became the highest-ranking woman in the United States government. Though we still may have some time to wait before  women are trusted to lead, this moment serves as a reminder that representation matters

Suggested reading: “American democracy finally passes the Bechdel test,” by Monica Hesse

2. The Biden administration appointed a record number of women to the Cabinet. 

The Winter 2021 cover of Ms.

Before entering office, President-elect Joe Biden promised to build the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history: “This will be the first Cabinet ever that is evenly composed with as many women as men … [and] the first Cabinet ever with the majority of people of color…” As of December 2021, President Biden’s Cabinet (including the president and vice president) is composed of 26 members; including acting directors, 12 are women and 13 are people of color.

In January 2021, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women predicted that Biden’s Cabinet would rank 16th in the world for its composition of women (46 percent), upon confirmation. In 2020, the US tied with three other countries in 104th place with just four women (17 percent) in the 23-member Cabinet.

Now that the U.S. has achieved a “record high” for women in the Cabinet, the next challenge will be for the president to ensure that their voices are heard

Suggested reading: “Biden will have more women in his Cabinet than any president ever. Other countries still do better,” by Karen Beckwith and Susan Franceschet

3. The Gender Policy Council was (re)established.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton established an Interagency Council of Women (1995-2001), which was charged with implementing commitments made at the UN World Conference on Women, under the leadership of First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In March 2009, President Obama revived the council through the White House Council on Women and Girls (2009-2017) to offer advice and coordinate policies relating to women and girls, under the leadership of Valerie Jarrett. 

In March 2021, President Biden established a new Gender Policy Council (GPC) and appointed Julissa Reynoso and Jennifer Klein as co-chairs. Unlike earlier versions of the council, the GPC is located within the White House and directly involves Biden’s Cabinet.

In October, the council launched the first National Strategy on Gender and Equality, which provides a comprehensive guide on the administration’s strategic priorities for intersectional, gender-based policies around economic security, gender-based violence, health care, education, justice and representation. 

Suggested reading: “Jennifer Klein on the U.S.’s ‘First Ever’ National Gender Strategy,” by Amy MackInnon and Anna Weber

4. A new “record high” of women entered the U.S. Congress.

In 2021, women held 144 of 535 (27 percent) seats in the U.S. Congress; 24 women (16 Democrats, 8 Republicans) serve as U.S. senators and 120 women (89 Democrats, 31 Republicans) serve as U.S. representatives in the House.

As of November 2021, women rank 73rd in the world for the number of women in the lower house of representatives (the U.S. House); last November, the United States had 101 women in the U.S. House and ranked 91st in the world.

This year, Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.)—along with Rep. Michelle Park Steel (R-Calif.) and Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.)—became the first Korean American women elected to Congress. 

Recent milestones for women in Congress include: Sen. Cynthia Lummis, the first woman elected senator of Wyoming; Rep. Cori Bush, the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress; and Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), Rep. Michelle Park Steel (R-Calif.), and Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), who together were the first Korean American women elected to Congress. 

Suggested reading: “10 Countries That Are Leading the World for Women in Politics,” by Khanyi Mlaba

5. Kathy Hochul became the first woman governor of New York.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul became the first woman governor of New York. (Twitter)

As of 2021, just 2 percent of all governors have been women in U.S. history; presently, nine women serve as governors across the country. Over the summer, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul became the first woman governor of New York in the wake of the former governor’s departure from office. More work needs to be done to expand the number of women governors in the United States; of the 2,573 people to have served as governor, just 45 have been women; of these women, only three have been women of color. 

In 2022, 36 gubernatorial seats will be up for election. In seven of these races, term limits will prevent the incumbent from running, presenting a strong opportunity to increase the number of women governors. According to new research from RepresentWomen, women governors are more likely to create gender-balanced state Cabinets than men. Out of 40 states, 10 currently meet or exceed gender parity on their Cabinets—half of all women governors have balanced or near-balanced Cabinets.  

Suggested reading: “New York Just Got its First Woman Governor. Let’s Make Sure She’s Not Their Last,” by Cynthia Richie Terrell

6. A record number of Black women are set to run for U.S. national and state office in 2022.

Women currently hold 30 percent of 310 statewide elective executive positions; women of color hold just 6 percent of these positions. In November 2021, Hala Ayala (D) and Winsome Sears (R) faced off in the race for lieutenant governor of Virginia. Regardless of who won, the winner of this election was set to become the first woman of color to hold statewide executive office in Virginia. Following a close election, Winsome Sears will become the first Black woman lieutenant governor in the state. 

Looking beyond 2021, a record number of Black women are set to run for U.S. national and state office in 2022. As a reminder, in all of U.S. history, Black women have been significantly underrepresented at the national and state level. Following Kamala Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency, there are no Black women in the U.S. Senate. In 2020, Marquita Bradshaw (D) was the only Black woman to win a U.S. Senate primary. At the state executive level, only 18 Black women have held office; no Black woman has ever been elected governor. 

Suggested reading: “State of Black women in American politics shows progress, concerns,” by Shakari Briggs

7. A record number of women hold state legislative leadership positions. 

As of February 2021, 87 women rose to leadership positions in either the state House or state Senate; in 2019, there were 72 women leaders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In six states (California, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington), women held four of the six legislative leadership roles; ten states had no women in leadership positions. 

According to the Center of American Women and Politics (CAWP), the percentage of women in state legislatures overall is also at a record high in 2021 at 31 percent. Nevada is the first and only state to have a majority of women (59 percent) in their state legislatures; West Virginia has the fewest women in office, with women holding just 13 percent of state legislative seats. 

Suggested reading: “Why state legislatures are still very white—and very male,” by Renuka Rayasam, Nolan McCaskill, Beatrice Jin and Allan James Vestal

8. Kim Janey and Michelle Wu broke through barriers in Boston politics.

For eight months in 2021, Kim Janey served as the acting mayor of Boston after her predecessor was confirmed to serve on President Biden’s Cabinet. She is the first woman and first person of color to serve as Boston’s mayor. Kim Janey’s tenure as mayor is part of a recent trend of women of color—Black women in particular—rising to lead U.S. cities. 

Michelle Wu, 36, is the first woman and first person of color to serve in Boston’s top office. (Twitter)

In November 2021, Michelle Wu made history in Boston when she was elected to be the next mayor. Upon entering office, Michelle Wu, who is Asian American, became the first woman, person of color, and millennial to be elected as Boston’s mayor. As of December 2021, 32 of the top 100 cities in the U.S. have women mayors; 15 are women of color. Michelle Wu is one of four Asian women mayors in the United States. 

Suggested reading: “Boston now has an Asian American woman as mayor. Why are so few women of color in elected office?” by Christian Dyogi Phillips

9. New York City elected a majority-women council using ranked choice-voting.

In June 2021, New York City used ranked choice voting to nominate candidates for mayor, the city council, public advocate, comptroller, and the five borough presidents. A record number of women ran, and a record number of women won. Starting in 2022, 31 of the 51 (61 percent) seats on the council will be filled by women, marking a new milestone for New York City politics. Of the 31 women that will serve in the council next year, 26 won in ranked choice primaries

This event was also notable because it marked the first major use of ranked choice voting in New York City since the late 1940s. Between 1937 and 1947, a form of multi-winner ranked choice voting was used to elect the first women to the New York City council. Eighty-seven years after Genevieve Earle began her tenure on the NYC council, the city will be majority-led by women for the first time in history. 

The first woman to serve on the NYC Council, Genevieve Earle, was elected in 1938 when ranked-choice voting was first used for citywide elections.

Suggested reading: “I lost the NYC mayoral race, but women and minorities win with ranked-choice voting,” by Maya Wiley

10. Women in Portland present a new way to run for office—collaboratively.

In Portland, four first-time women candidates (Patricia Washburn, Catherine Buxton, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Shay Stewart-Bouley) successfully joined forces to campaign as the “Rose Slate” ahead of the June Charter Commission elections. According to Washburn, forming the Rose Slate created unique incentives for them all to learn how to work together. 

In return, scenarios that otherwise would have presented as obstacles became opportunities for these women to collaborate. For example, as a wheelchair user, Washburn shared that she would have had a harder time navigating the city streets to knock on doors without the support of the other members. Though three of the members wound up going through a ranked choice runoff, all four women ultimately secured seats on the commission.

Suggested reading: “Rose Slate shows a way to work together toward a better Portland,” by Patricia Washburn

On a personal note, 2021 has also presented a time of growth for the RepresentWomen team. In the past few months, we’ve hired a new director of strategic partnerships (Katie Usalis), digital media manager (Kaycie Goral), and four research associates (Alisha Saxena, Fatma Tawfik, Grace Beyer and Paige Chan). Over the past 12 months, we also had an opportunity to work with fellows (Asel Timur Kyzy and Rania Boublal) participating in IREX’s Community Solutions Program and many talented interns. 

While there is still room for improvement, 2021 has been a landmark year for women in American politics and each new milestone brings us a step closer to achieving a government that reflects the American people and enhances the quality of our democracy. Between our growing team and the ongoing support from our partners, we at RepresentWomen are looking forward to taking our research and advocacy to the next level in 2022 to bring us closer to a gender-inclusive world. 

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Courtney Lamendola (she/her) is the director of research at RepresentWomen, a growing think and action tank that studies the barriers to women’s representation and advocates for structural solutions like ranked choice voting, gender-balanced appointment rules, and funding targets for PACs. Follow Courtney on Twitter: @Lamendola_