The State of Women’s Leadership—And How To Continue Changing the Face of U.S. Politics
Note: Statistics on women elected to congressional seats are current as of the date of publication.
Building on the momentum of the 2018 midterm elections, more women—particularly women of color and LGBTQ candidates—ran for office in 2020 than ever before. Historic wins across political affiliation spanned from state legislatures to the halls of Congress and the White House, most notably with the landmark election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. These victories come at an important moment for women of color, particularly for Latinas and Black women, who continue to disproportionately feel the health and economic harms of the coronavirus pandemic. Their gains also occur amid a long-overdue national reckoning with race and inequality that has challenged the status quo and permeated political narratives. These women in leadership are poised to set the tone and shape policy at all levels of government as the country recovers from a traumatic year and works toward a more progressive future.
This column outlines some of the most notable advancements in women’s leadership—from the executive branch to state legislatures—and proposes several policies that would ensure the United States continues on a path to gender parity for years to come.
The White House
Upon inauguration, Vice President-elect Harris will have risen higher in national leadership than any woman in U.S. history—and she will become the first woman, Black person, and Indian American to serve as vice president of the United States. For the past four years, Harris was the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate and only the second Black woman ever to do so. As vice president, Harris will bring to the White House a strong track record of commitment to women’s equality, as demonstrated by her progressive proposals on equal pay, paid family and medical leave, reproductive rights, and maternal health, as well as her insistence during her presidential campaign that all issues are women’s issues. In addition to her women’s rights bona fides, Harris’ experience serving on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and as California attorney general, among other roles, has garnered praise from colleagues across the aisle. Harris’ win marks a milestone for all but particularly for the new possibilities her election represents for women, Black people, and Indian Americans.
Whereas women held 127 seats in Congress in 2019, they will surpass that record with 142 women serving in 2021. This historic group of congresswomen includes a record-breaking 51 women of color and at least two women who identify as LGBTQ: Reps. Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Angie Craig (D-MN), both of whom were incumbents.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the only woman in history to serve as speaker of the House and will serve in that role once again for the 117th Congress. This marks the first time in history that the first two people in the line of succession behind the president are women.
At least 118 women, including 48 women of color, were elected to the House in 2020. Democrats matched their 2019 record of 89 Democratic women in the House. Meanwhile, Republican women saw an 18 percent increase in representation, surpassing their 2006 record of 25 women representatives with 29 in 2021. Gains among Republican women are not surprising considering the dramatic increase in the number of Republican women appearing on the ballot in November 2020. Compared with the 2018 midterms, there was an 81 percent increase in Republican women House candidates in 2020, compared with a 12 percent increase in Democratic women House candidates in the same period.
A few major firsts in the House:
- New Mexico became the first state to elect a House delegation that is entirely made up of women of color, with Reps. Debra Halaand (D) and Yvette Herrell (R)—both Native American—and Latina Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D). In January 2021, Rep. Halaand was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as secretary of the interior.
- Stephanie Bice (R-OK) is the first Iranian American to serve in Congress and the first woman to serve as the Republican freshman class president in the House.
- Cori Bush (D) is the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.
- Young Kim (R-CA), Michelle Steel (R-CA), and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) are the first Korean American women to serve in Congress. Rep. Strickland is also the first Black person to represent Washington state in Congress.
- Victoria Spartz (R-IN) is the first Ukranian-born person to serve in Congress.
Unfortunately, women made less progress in the U.S. Senate. Twenty-four women will serve in the Senate in 2021, down from the record 26 women in January 2020. The remainder of Vice President-elect Harris’ senatorial term will be served by current California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, decreasing the total number of women of color senators from four in 2020 to three in 2021.
The 1992 “Year of the Woman” marked the first period during which more than two women at a time served in the Senate, with three women serving in September and four additional women elected in November of that year. Today, women represent just less than one-quarter of current senators. As of 2021, only 58 women—including just five women of color—have ever served in the Senate. This year did, however, see the first woman elected to represent Wyoming in the Senate, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R).
State and local leadership
There are a record 2,276 women—including 552 women of color—state legislators in 2021. These women represent 30 percent of state legislators nationwide. Women will hold 557 state Senate seats (28 percent) and 1,719 state House or Assembly seats (32 percent). Nevada continues to be the only state where women represent 50 percent or more of the state legislature.
LGBTQ candidates also made strides in 2020, winning around 43 percent of their races based on one estimate by the LGBTQ Victory Fund. State Sen. Sarah McBride (D)—the first openly transgender person elected to the Delaware Senate and the first transgender state senator anywhere in the United States—became the highest-ranking trans person elected to office in U.S. history. McBride will be joined by state Rep. Stephanie Byers (D) of Kansas and state Rep. Taylor Small (D) of Vermont as some of the first openly transgender legislators in their respective states. In addition, state Rep. Mauree Turner (D-OK) is the first nonbinary state lawmaker in U.S. history and Oklahoma’s first Muslim legislator. Moreover, a historic number of openly lesbian and bisexual candidates won seats in state legislatures, including but not limited to Jessica Benham (D) in Pennsylvania; Kim Jackson (D) in Georgia; Kate Lieber (D) in Oregon; Tiara Mack in Rhode Island; Rebecca Perkins Kwoka (D) in New Hampshire; Marie Pinkney (D) in Delaware; and Michele Rayner-Goolsby (D) in Florida.
Women of color also achieved historic firsts in state legislatures. For example, Iman Jodeh (D) became the first Palestinian American and Muslim person elected to the Colorado Assembly; Mary Kunesh-Podein (D) is the first Native woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate; Emily Weber (D) is the first Asian American woman elected to the Missouri House; Kesha Ram (D) is the Indian American woman elected to the Vermont Senate; and Naquetta Ricks (D) is the first Liberian American to serve in the Colorado Legislature.
Among mayors of the 100-largest U.S. cities, only 27 percent were women—and only 10 percent were women of color—as of June 2020. The November 2020 election brought some firsts for women of color, including but not limited to the first woman mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava (D); the first woman of color and first Muslim person to serve as mayor of Irvine, California, Farrah Khan (D); and the first Latina mayor and first nonwhite elected official of Columbia Heights, Minnesota, Amáda Márquez Simula.
While women’s representation improved among state legislators and mayors, there were no gains for women as governors. Women represent only 18 percent of governors nationwide, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) is currently the only woman of color serving as governor.
Policies to support more women in leadership
Even with the strides made in 2020, women are far from reaching gender parity in political leadership. There are 118 women in the House (27 percent), 24 women in the Senate (24 percent), and nine women governors (18 percent); 49 out of 50 state legislatures are made up of less than 50 percent women. In order to ensure the United States becomes a reflective democracy, policymakers and advocates must address the significant inequities and barriers that women face when pursuing elected office.
Policies and efforts to approach gender parity in public office include:
- Actively recruiting women of color and candidates outside of traditional networks. Individual donors, political parties, and PACs should set voluntary goals to encourage a rapid rise in the percentage of women on ballots. They must also increase funding for women candidates, particularly in open-seat elections, which offer the best opportunities for women of color, LGBTQ candidates, and other historically marginalized candidates.
- Reducing the role of big money in elections. Cities and states should adopt small-donor public financing of elections. To reduce the role of big money in elections and adopt systems of small-donor public financing, Congress should enact relevant legislation such as the comprehensive For the People Act (H.R. 1), which was introduced in the 116th Congress and has been reintroduced in the 117th.
- Improving wages for public service professionals. States should pay officeholders a living wage to permit those without independent means or highly flexible careers to pursue careers in public service. Only five states pay officeholders a base salary that is at least as high as those states’ respective median household incomes in 2019.
- Improving work-family policies. Legislatures should adopt family-friendly workplace policies—including fair scheduling, telework options, access to lactation rooms, and essential benefits such as paid leave and affordable and flexible child care—to attract and retain women. Moreover, legislatures should rescind sexist dress codes and rules that prohibit caregivers from bringing children to work or onto the legislative floor, the latter of which makes it particularly difficult for women to fully participate.
- Allow the use of campaign funds for child care expenses.To ensure that women and other candidates with caregiving responsibilities are able to campaign competitively, all states and the federal government should explicitly allow candidates to use campaign funds for campaign-related child care expenses. While some states determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis and the Federal Election Commission has issued some guidance, the practice should be enshrined in law. Already addressing this issue are seven states and Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who introduced the Help America Run Act in the 116th Congress. Policymakers should revise existing laws and guidance to allow campaign funds to be used for child care expenses—a necessary step to enable diverse candidates’ participation in campaign activities.
- Fostering a culture of equity and respect on the campaign trail. To develop a strong pipeline of women candidates, campaigns must root out sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and other harmful biases. Campaigns must establish a standard for all interactions by adopting a clear and robust respectable workplace policy. In addition, campaigns should mandate anti-sexual harassment and other anti-bias trainings for all staff in order to identify, respond to, and prevent sexual harassment and other discrimination. An established culture of equity and respect in the workplace entails a comprehensive effort, including equitable hiring, management, and personnel practices across the board. Campaigns should have a high-ranking role—such as a chief diversity officer or a senior adviser on equity and inclusion—to facilitate and manage this vital work.
Amid a tumultuous and challenging year, women across all levels of government made major strides in political leadership into 2021, most notably with the election of Vice President-elect Harris to the nation’s second-highest office. Not only did women—and particularly women of color—turn out to vote in historic numbers, but they also elected record-shattering numbers of women of color and LGBTQ people to their state legislatures and Congress. And they did so all while keeping the country afloat as essential workers and caregivers throughout the ongoing pandemic. Women of color have forged the path forward. Now, we must support them and let them lead the way.
Robin Bleiweis is a research associate for women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress. Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center.
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Research Associate, Women’s Economic Security
Vice President, Women's Initiative