Gains for Women in Senate Help Make Our Case for Representation 2020

by Patricia Hart // Published November 8, 2012


Refusing to sit idly by and let the boys have all the fun, women played a lead role in the 2012 presidential election as a key voting bloc. And as candidates, women etched their names into political history with a diverse field of contenders, winning several significant congressional races and achieving many firsts. Though the successes of women in this year’s election are compelling, their numbers fell far short of equity, which is Representation 2020’s target. As a true “representation movement,” Representation 2020 seeks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women earning a right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 by claiming fair representation in government.

More women ran for political office in the 2012 election than ever before. EMILY’s List, a Democratic political action committee (PAC), played a significant role in recruiting and training women to run for office, which may have affected the outcome of certain races in terms of candidate viability and partisanship, just as Sarah Palin’s highlighting of her “mama grizzlies” in 2010 contributed to a high number of Republican women being elected to gubernatorial positions in several states. Despite the efforts of these groups, the increase of women’s representation in the U.S. House floundered, gaining a mere 1 percent. 

This year, Democratic women fared significantly better than Republican women in major statewide races. In the 113th Congress, women will hold 20 percent of Senate seats. Though still dramatically below political parity, 20 percent is the most Senate seats ever held by women and ten times higher than the Senate of 1992, in which only two seats were held by women. 

Women have done particularly well in New Hampshire, which became the first state to elect an all-women congressional delegation when Democrats Ann Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter defeated incumbents to win the state’s congressional seats. New Hampshire also elected Maggie Hassan, the only woman in the country to run for Governor in the general election on a major party ticket, and soon to be the only Democratic woman Governor nationwide.  Women have a history of doing well in New Hampshire, in part because of its large legislature and use of multi-seat districts, which tend to result in more women running and winning.    

Several landmarks were made by individual candidates. Here are some of the historical firsts for female candidates of the 2012 election: 

  • Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is the first openly gay candidate to be elected to the Senate. 
  • Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, became the state’s first woman elected to the Senate. 
  • Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, is the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate
  • Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and veteran from Illinois, became the first disabled woman elected to the House of Representatives.  
  • Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, is the first Hindu elected to Congress. 

The election did result in two odd partisan imbalances. Of the 20 women in the U.S. Senate next year, 16 will be Democrats and only four Republican – with two Republicans (Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Olympia Snowe) retiring this year. But among our five women governors (out of 50), there are four Republican women (in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina) and just one Democrat, the newly elected Hassan.

While the 2012 election provides another step toward gender parity in American politics, there is obviously more progress to be made – women are 20% of the Senate, 10% of governors and only 12% of mayors of our 100 largest cities. They have less than a fifth of U.S. House seats and less than a quarter of state legislative seats. Though FairVote commends the work undertaken by groups seeking to recruit and train women to run for office, these efforts do not get at the heart of the problem and will have to be repeated year after year. The most overlooked underlying cause for low women’s representation is structural in nature – that is, we need to change our electoral rules because they dramatically affect who is and who is not elected to office. 

Currently, most elections in the United States are conducted under the winner-takes-all rule. The winner-takes-all rule is particularly disadvantageous to women and racial minorities, when paired with single-seat districts, districts out of which only one representative is elected to office. Although research has shown that a well-financed woman is just as likely as a man to win an open seat election, fewer women run in single-seat districts. Additionally, parties and other political associations are less likely to encourage women to run when there is only one seat. When there are multiple seats in a district, parties try to balance the gender ratio of their tickets to not appear blatantly sexist. And when voters elect more than one official, they tend to balance the gender ratio on their ballots, further contributing to more women getting elected. 

Moving toward a proportional voting system with multi-seat districts is the long term solution for gaining gender parity in America - and creating a larger group of women who are positioned to rise to higher executive offices like mayor, governor and president. FairVote will launch its campaign Representation 2020 that seeks to increase women’s representation via electoral reform and a more direct call for women to be recruited for open seats. Women are making history, but we need a renewed commitment to parity to have a true celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage.