Historical Context: The Year of the Woman

freshman women in congress

Photo by Martin Schoeller for Vanity Fair

This month, there was a flurry of press about the women being sworn into the House of Representatives, among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davis; and Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress, and one of the first two Muslim women to serve. They were captured in an “instantly iconic” portrait by Martin Schoeller published in Vanity Fair. These women, Ocasio-Cortez in particular, are already making a splash and defending themselves and their ideas in the press and on Capitol Hill.

Since the midterm election, there have been articles hailing 2018 a new “Year of the Woman” and I want to provide a bit of an overview of why people are saying that and how this “Year of the Woman” compares to the last.

What is the “Year of the Woman”?

In 1992, an impressive-for-the-time number women–28–were elected to Congress, including two women from California–Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein–making it the first time a state was represented by two women in the Senate. This election nearly doubled the number of women in the House and raised the number of female senators from 2 to 6.

According to the Archives of the United States House of Representatives:

“The impressive gains by women in 1992 were not the product of any one galvanizing event, but, rather, the confluence of several long-term trends and short-term election year issues. Demographics, global politics, scandal, and the ripple effect of the women’s liberation movement all played a part in the results of that historic election.” (The Year of the Woman, 1992: History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives)

The more popular interpretation, however, is that the “Year of the Woman” was a response to the controversial Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation process for Justice Clarence Thomas. Those hearings did not look good for Thomas (but he was still confirmed), and they did not look good for the Senate, as there were no women on the Senate Judicial Committee. That meant that Hill was questioned about her sexual harassment allegations by a bunch of old men. The optics are bad. It’s bad.

The Archives of the United States House of Representatives argues that:

“Expectations for a “breakthrough” year for women had been high since the late 1970s; in fact, 1984 had been hopefully, but prematurely, advertised as the “Year of the Woman.” Political observers discussed the rise of a “gender gap” and predicted that 6 million more women than men would vote in the 1984 elections. When Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen as the Democratic candidate for Vice President that year—the first woman to appear on a major party ticket—expectations soared for a strong turnout by women at the polls.”

Still, the frustration and outrage over the Hill-Thomas debacle are looked at as a flashpoint. The narrative goes that women got frustrated by their lack of representation and set out to fix it. In addition to that frustration, there was also a growing pool of female candidates with experience, more availability of funding, a number of retiring members of congress, and the redistricting after the 1990 Census helped too.

Forty-seven of the 58 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2016. Still, women only make up 23% of Congress as compared to 51% of the population. 

Why are people calling 2018 “Year of the Woman”?

There are clearly some parallels between 2018 and 1992. Women are still grossly underrepresented, and women of color even more so. Add in frustrations over sexist rhetoric coming out of the White House and the lingering disappointment and anger over the 2016 election and there is plenty to motivate women to run for election. Like in 1992, there is better access to funding and a spate of retirements. Then there was the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh which featured the poignant testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about her allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh. He was still confirmed.  Jennifer Rubin writes for The Washington Post: 

“Absorbing the constant sting of Trump’s verbal arrows, women did not “get over” Trump’s election or learn to live with his serial affronts. They did not take kindly to his mocking of the #MeToo movement or of Christine Blasey Ford. It’s fair to say that women who would not have otherwise gotten politically involved did so because they could clearly see the mostly male political powers were not looking after their interests. So they marched, they organized, they became donors, they ran for office, they made new alliances, they ‘persisted,’ as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refused to sit down and be quiet as instructed on the Senate floor.” (“Year of the woman? Darn right.”)

By the numbers, how did this “Year of the Woman” stack up?

  • 7 gubernatorial pickups (4 Democrats and 3 Republicans), bringing female governors up to 9
  • Women will hold 96 seats in the House (a record); 23 seats in the Senate

According to Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institute, a “Year of the Woman” could have very practical and good results for Congress.  She explains that:

“[W]omen in legislative roles have been more likely to reach across the aisle. According to one study by political scientists, under some conditions, “while men may choose to obstruct and delay, women continue to strive to build coalitions and bring about new policies.” (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”)

The election of 117 women in 2018 also follows some longterm trends in the electorate: women vote more for Democrats and women vote more than men. Kamarck explains, “In addition to their preference for Democrats, women have voted in higher numbers than men since 1984 and 10 million more women are registered to vote than men. But women’s preferences for Democrats does not mean that Democrats win. They only win when the women’s preferences for Democrats exceed men’s preferences for Republicans—which was not the case in 2016″ (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”).

From where I’m sitting, the upward trend of the number of women serving on Capitol Hill is very slow and big problems still persist. Here’s hoping that this freshman class of go-getters can get some stuff done.

Further Reading: 



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