At the rate they’re going, it will take another 107 years until women hold half the seats in Congress, according to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonpartisan group that studies female-centered issues.
With 99 women among the 535 members of Congress currently – a record high – the 107-year estimate is “an optimistic model,” institute study director Jeffrey Hayes said.
In the last 20 years, the number of women in Congress has grown at a rate of one to nine female members per session. The incremental steps toward gender parity follow from the 1992 election, when the number of women in Congress rose from 32 to 54. That increase was the first – and last – of that magnitude.
“There are particular moments in time … that meant that a lot more women got elected that year,” said Kathy Kleeman, senior communications officer at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “You never know when that’s going to happen again.”
Indeed, there could be an unforeseen catalyst that would drive more women to run – and win.
The 1992 surge of victorious female candidates stemmed, in part, from a backlash after many of the members of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 brushed off Anita Hill’s claims that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
As the numbers grew steadily if gradually, Congress changed.
Most notably, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was elected the first female speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007. Another change: The House installed a more centrally located women’s restroom, near the Speaker’s Lobby, in 2011.
While a woman has never served as the minority or majority leader on the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the first female chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, became the longest-serving female senator in 2012.
“More things like that need to happen for the spotlight to be shining on the politicians who happen to be women and are doing great things,” said Elyse Shaw, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research special assistant to the president.
Beyond the reasons both genders run for elected office, such as ambition and public service, women tend to run for additional reasons, according to Kleeman:
• An issue they’re interested in is dominated by men.
• They’ve been inspired or enabled by other female politicians.
“What has to happen is more women need to decide to run, and more needs to happen to get them to make that decision,” Kleeman said. “In order for that to take place, more women need to be asked to run. Women are not as likely as men to put themselves forward.”
Only in the last 20 years has there been a shift toward accepting women as the lead voices on particular issues, Senate associate historian Betty Koed said.
“There has been so much progress made in terms of the growing importance of women,” Koed said. “I doubt that it’ll take 100 years” for women to fill an equal number of seats in Congress.
Over history, 251 women have served in the House, while 33 women have served in the Senate.
It’s easier in the House, with less expensive election campaigns and a growing network of female leaders and role models, according to Matthew Wasniewski, the editor of “Women in Congress,” a congressional report.
“From the beginning there have been a lot more women who have served in the House, so there’s a network,” Wasniewski said. “Women serve as mentors or leaders for younger women members to pattern themselves after.”
The first woman to serve in Congress, Rep. Jeannette Rankin, R-Mont., took office in 1917 – before women had the right to vote. The first woman in the Senate to serve more than 24 hours, Arkansas Democrat Hattie Wyatt Caraway, followed in 1931. (Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Georgia Democrat, served for just a day in 1922, to fill a vacancy.)
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