When It Comes to Lady Politicians, We've Got a Long Way to Go

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Democrat Elizabeth Warren takes the stage after defeating incumbent GOP Senator Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, during an election night rally at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, Tuesday, November 6, 2012. 

It's made for a great narrative: Tuesday night, female candidates prevailed in nearly all the tightest, most-watched Senate races around the country. A historic number of women will now serve in the upper chamber, once the boysiest of boys' clubs. If that wasn't enough to prompt some girl-power cheering, there was the news out of New Hampshire that, with the election of Maggie Hassan to the state's top executive spot, the governor, senators, and congressional representatives now all carry XX chromosomes. 

Several commentators have noted there's still a long way to go. But perhaps, more notably, there's little evidence that these wins are part of a wider trend for female candidates.

The political gains were most notable in the Senate, where 20 percent of seats will now be held by people personally familiar with pay gaps, insurance discrimination, and all the subtle sexisms that can make being female so grand. Among the states electing these ladies are four that have never done so before—Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. The gains in Congress were less dramatic—only four more women will serve next term. 

But notably, these record wins have not meant more gender-parity in state legislatures. While the final tallies are still coming in, it looks like the proportion of women serving in statehouses held steady, at around a quarter of seats. The number of female governors went down, from six to four.

This is all disturbing since, according to Katie Ziegler, manager of the Women's Legislative Network at the National Conference of State Legislatures, there was a concerted national effort to recruit female candidates from groups like the 2012 Project and the White House Project. However, those efforts did not translate to significant growth. Around the same number of women ran as in 2010, and there's been no significant gain in the number elected. 

It's hard to assess any sort of dynamic or trend when the female numbers are so low. For instance, South Carolina will once again have a woman in its senate. But that's a gain that could be short-lived; it also had a woman serving four years ago. It's hardly a major sign that big things are coming for South Carolinian ladies. Meanwhile West Virginia, which had two women serving in its senate, now only has one. Things probably aren't worse for female candidates as a result, but they're still as bad as ever.

Of course, the Senate gains are nothing to scoff at, and they could potentially get more women involved. (This strange thing happens when women get power—other competent women come out of the woodwork as well!) At the very least, they help illustrate that women can run very different styles of campaigns, not limited to so-called women's issues, and still win.

Several of the victories were notably impressive. Many pundits had all but written off Heidi Heitkamp's campaign in North Dakota, where Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC flooded the airwaves with attack ads with a total price tag of $2 million. Massachusetts's race between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican incumbent Scott Brown for the U.S. Senate may have been the most-watched down-ticket race in the country and for months was a virtual dead heat. In Wisconsin's Senate race, Tammy Baldwin faced a Republican opponent with more name-recognition, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who also got backed with $2.7 million in Crossroads money. Baldwin's victory also broke down a major barrier; she'll be the first openly gay person to serve in the Senate.

The election brings more women of color to Washington, too. Hawaii's Mazie Hirono will be the first Asian American woman—and the second woman of color—elected to the Senate. In Congress, there will be an all-time high of 28 women of color—13 African Americans, 6 Asian Americans, and 9 Latinas.

The simple shift of having more female politicians in the newspaper and on TV will certainly help get more people used to this whole crazy idea that women can govern. But it's hardly the time to sit back and break out the champagne.

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