Women may be ringing in a political new year on November 6. In the final countdown to the 2012 election, researchers say the two major political parties have more women candidates running for Congress than ever before.
“Not since the so-called ‘Year of the Woman’ in 1992 have we seen such a leap in the number of women stepping forward to contend for congressional seats,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
The CAWP notes
184 women are running for Congress in the major parties this year, up from 152 in 2010. Eighteen women (12 Democrats, six Republicans) are running for Senate seats, while 166 women (118 Democrats, 48 Republicans) are on the ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Woman vs. Woman
Women are even squaring off against each other for 14 of the 468 available congressional seats. Such is the case in Maryland's District 4, where Republican Faith Loudon is challenging Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards.
"I do want to be a role model for my granddaughters," Loudon said in between talking to voters near a local polling station. "I think because I am doing this, I know that there are a lot of women that are encouraged and are going to step forth in the future."
As Maryland's only female member in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Edwards notes the campaign trail is a "really tough environment."
"I think we're really just coming into our political space," she said while handing out political flyers to constituents at a metro stop.
The increase in women, however, does not classify as a breakthrough just yet, according to Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
"Although we do have a record number of women running for both the Senate and the House, it's important to put those numbers in perspective, she said. "These numbers don't represent marked increases over previous election cycles."
Even with record-shattering numbers, women only constitute about 20 percent of the two major parties' total number of congressional candidates.
The problem is getting women to run in the first place. Lawless said her research shows three basic factors are keeping women from running. First, women in American society have made gains in the workforce but still shoulder the vast majority of household and childcare responsibilities.
Loudon, a career homemaker, did not run for Congress until her children were supporting their own children. Edwards ran for office amid the pressure of being a single mother.
"I still had to send my son to college, I still had to make sure that I had dinner prepared, but I also was fully prepared to do the duties that were required of me in Congress," Edwards said.
Another obstacle is that women are less likely to be recruited for office than men. Congresswoman Edwards said no one approached her to run for office and called it a "big mistake" that so few women are encouraged to run.
"To be honest, I spent a lot of time trying to find somebody else who would run, and then when nobody would, I decided to do it," she said.
Coupled with the fact that women are less likely to be recruited is the personal assessment of qualifications. Lawless says many men and women may look the same on paper, but men are much more likely to assess themselves as qualified to run.
Loudon, too, turned to others to run at first, even though she has been involved in political campaigns for more than 30 years.
"I tried to get every man that I knew that had name recognition that would be a qualified candidate, and not one of them would take on the challenge," she said.
Breaking the cycle
Loudon admitted to seeking out men in particular because they were the ones who had previously run for other offices. She is not the only one who has turned to incumbents for leadership. Past election results show voters are much more likely to choose incumbents, making it difficult to break a cycle that lacks equal female representation.
"When we have a Congress right now that's 84 percent men, and the overwhelming majority of those men are seeking reelection, that doesn't allow much opportunity for women to make substantial gains," Lawless said.
Analysts agree the good news is that gains are possible. Lawless says the gender gap in Congress has nothing to do with voters because women are just as likely as their male counterparts to win elections. This proved true in this year's primaries, where more than half of the women advanced to become their party's candidate for Congress.
Women also have the potential to make more political gains this year because it is the first election after the redrawing of congressional districts, which happens every 10 years. Redistricting creates more open seats, which in turn provides the best opportunity for new candidates, male and female.
The shortage of women in Congress is not something that can change in one election cycle, but this year's increase in candidates could prove to be a big step forward for women when the election results are announced.