It’s Not Enough to Just Break Records in the 117th Congress

By Maura Reilly on January 07, 2021

Despite historic numbers for women, Congress continues to fall far short of gender balance.

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This past Sunday, after being re-elected as Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi addressed the 117th Congress saying “It gives me great pride to serve as Speaker of the most diverse House in the history of our country – with a record-shattering 122 women.”

 

From day one, the 117th Congress has already made history with record numbers of women, women of color, and Republican women serving. 

  • 118 women will serve as voting representatives in the House plus four additional non-voting delegates; 52 are women of color.
  • 25 women were sworn into the Senate, four are women of color. However, these numbers will go down when Kamala Harris vacates her seat to become Vice President.
  • 37 Republican women make up the 117th Congress, breaking their previous 2010 record of 21.

 

Our record-numbers not only failed to significantly move the needle toward gender balance, it also came with a hefty price tag. Combined, the 124 women who won their general election bids raised a total of $484.6 million; while, the 215 women who lost in the general election raised a combined $618.1 million. Even with a record number of women donating and raising money, many of the highest funded women candidates still lost their 2020 races. 

 

Although a record number of women ran in 2020, they ran in largely uncompetitive races, because they were running as challengers. In 2020, 189 women ran as challengers, only nine won their races, a success rate of 4.8 percent. Despite their low chances of success, women challengers raised a combined total of $423.8 million. In Kentucky, challenger Amy McGrath was the highest funded congressional candidate, raising a total of $88.1 million compared to incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell’s $68 million. Despite her unmatched funding, McGrath’s loss was all but predetermined because incumbents have such an advantage in our system.

 

Even with growing revenue for organizations which train women to run for elected office, and growing numbers of women running for office, our progress remains slow and intermittent. Between 2001 and 2019 organizations which train women to run for office had a combined revenue of $120.6 million (across 31 organizations with available financial information); but the percent of women in the House has only gone from 13.6% in 2001 to 27.1% in 2021. This slow improvement is not due to organizations failing to prepare women to run, or preparing too few women; but, because the system women are being trained for offers very few competitive races for women to run in and actually win. 

 

Until we address the problems with our electoral system and implement institutional strategies to correct it, women will continue to be severely underrepresented at every level of elected office, including Congress, regardless of the growing price tag which comes with every election cycle. 

 

A portion of the money spent on support for individual candidates (many of whom lose) could be spent on implementing systems strategies like ranked choice voting and multi-member districts, reforms which would create more seats for women to run for and win. Not only do these reforms have a long history in the United States, they have been proven to increase women’s representation at the national level in countries which have adopted them around the world. Thirty-seven of the top 50 countries for women’s representation have proportional representation or mixed electoral systems for their national legislatures. 

 

Ranked choice voting in multi-seat districts decreases the importance placed on party affiliation, increases healthy competition for seats, encourages issue-focused campaigns, and decreases the cost of running. Implementing these reforms will lead to substantial and sustained progress toward women’s equal representation at a fraction of the cost of funding individual campaigns. 

 

While the 117th Congress may have set records for gender, racial, and partisan diversity, these records continue to be far below much of the world. With the 118 women serving in the House of Representatives, the U.S. ranks 68th in the world for women’s representation, tying with Kazakhstan; while many of our democratic allies rank in the top 50 for gender balance in legislatures. To make substantial and sustained steps to women’s equal representation, we must address the systemic issues in our electoral system and start funding systems reforms, not just candidates. 

 

Maura is RepresentWomen’s Outreach and Communications Coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in Social Anthropology. Follow Maura on Twitter, @further_maura.