Editor’s Note: Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers-New Brunswick, and project director at Gender Watch 2018 – a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and CAWP. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author’s.
Progress is not inevitable. And it is rarely – if ever – complete. For women in American politics, each point of progress serves as a reminder of the progress we have yet to make toward equitable power and presence in government.
Monday’s swearing in of Cindy Hyde-Smith as the first woman in Congress from Mississippi is a perfect illustration of these points. One hundred and one years after the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, entered Congress, Mississippi is sending a woman to Washington, DC, for the first time. A milestone worth celebrating? Sure. But 101 years is a long time to wait, and in some states, the wait will be been even longer: constituents in Vermont are still waiting to see a woman in their congressional delegation.
Electing or appointing one woman to Congress also does not ensure that more will come after her, at least not quickly, or even that she’ll stay in Congress. In Mississippi, multiple men have already lined up to compete against Hyde-Smith in this fall’s election for a full term in the Senate. Even with her ascension to the Senate, women make up just 19.8% of Congress, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers. A decade ago, women were 16.4% of all members of Congress. Progress? Yes, but far from rapid and definitely incomplete.
Having more women in Congress spells progress on multiple fronts – more equal representation being only one. Research has shown that the results-oriented approach of women in Congress has made them more effective than their male counterparts in bringing more money to their home districts, sponsoring or co-sponsoring more bills, and – at least among minority party congresswomen – moving legislation forward through the legislative process. And greater diversity of voices, including women’s voices, enriches debate and helps Congress to better reflect the breadth of experiences and perspectives of those it serves.
And yet currently, according to the CAWP, 11 states have no women representing them in Congress. For the first time in 44 years, Maryland – a state that elected its first female member of Congress in her own right in 1972 – sent an all-male delegation to Congress in 2017.
As some tout this week that just one state has yet to send a woman to Congress, much coverage will overlook the fact that 30 states have never sent a woman of color to Congress and that 33 states currently have no women of color in their congressional delegations. More specifically, black women have represented just 16 states in Congress and Asian-American women have served in only 6 states’ congressional delegations, according to CAWP. Never has a Native American woman served in Congress (though this year – when at least four indigenous women are running for the US House – may change that).
Just 13 Latinas from 6 states have served in Congress since 1989, when the first Latina was elected to Congress. Remembering this historical context makes it far less surprising that Texas is poised to elect its first Latina (or Latinas) to Congress in 2018. That point of progress – one widely covered in media after Texas’ primary last month – is cause for celebration, but also serves as a reminder of the work we have left to do to see a Congress that reflects the full diversity of those it represents.
Research that I have conducted with my CAWP colleagues at Rutgers demonstrates that women’s congressional representation matters in ways that go beyond the numbers. Our interviews with 83 of the women who served in the 114th Congress revealed that, at a time characterized by polarization and gridlock, women members perceive themselves as more results-oriented than their male colleagues, more likely to emphasize achievement over ego, and more concerned with achieving policy outcomes rather than receiving publicity or credit.
Congresswomen who spoke with us also said they see themselves as bringing distinctive perspectives to the work they do by placing issues related to women’s lives on the congressional agenda and being a voice for the voiceless in the halls of Congress. But women’s distinctive perspectives are not rooted in gender alone. Truly improving the representativeness of Congress requires increasing not just the number of women in Congress, but the diversity of women’s experiences brought to bear on agenda-setting and decision-making. As Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who became the first Asian-American woman elected to the US Senate in 2013, told us, “Seeing people of different backgrounds and ethnicities and interacting with them, I think that you find some commonalities, but you also maybe begin to appreciate the diversity in our country. And when you appreciate that, it makes for a much more expansive thinking.” It also makes for more inclusive and informed policymaking.
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This brings us back to the numbers. One of the most common refrains from the 83 congresswomen we interviewed was that they wanted to see more women join their ranks. Like me, many women across America and in Congress will celebrate the welcome addition of another woman to the US Senate today. At the same time, congresswomen, scholars, and practitioners concerned about gender inequality are acutely aware that progress in representation for women in Congress has been slow, is far from complete, and does not happen without work. Placing Mississippi’s milestone in context might help to motivate more of that work. I hope it does, because, when it comes to gender and racial diversity, Congress remains a work in progress.