A record number of women currently serve in the U.S. Congress.
They hold 23.5% of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections. About a quarter of the Senate — 26 out of 100 senators — are female.
However, the United States lags far behind dozens of other countries, including Mexico, Tunisia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, when it comes to female representation in government. Recent findings from the Inter-Parliamentary Union rank the U.S. 76th out of 193 countries when it comes to women serving on the national level.
The numbers are slightly better on the state level. In 2019, 28.7% of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States were women.
Two women, senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, remain in the race for president of the United States. Klobuchar placed third in the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary after a strong debate showing. Both women are likely to be held to different standards than their male counterparts in their quest to become commander in chief.
“Women are expected to be twice as good,” says Amanda Hunter, director of research and communications for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to ensure that women are equally represented in American politics. “They have to walk the likability tightrope, and they have to prove that they're qualified.”
The women who do manage to get into office tend to change the nature of the discussion.
Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, says female leaders often tackle close-to-home issues like day care, paid family leave and retirement security. They have also taken up issues like domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military.
“I think there are a whole lot of things that are in the public domain and the public dialogue right now that would not be in that public dialogue if women weren't on the podium and on that stage,” Heitkamp says. “(Former Democratic Maryland Sen.) Barbara Mikulski had the best line of all time on that. She said women care about the macroeconomic issues, but they also care about the macaroni-and-cheese issues.”
Heitkamp, who served in Congress from 2013 until 2019, participated in bipartisan dinners with her fellow female colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. They banded together to avoid a government shutdown in 2013.
“A lot of women got into politics not — I don’t mean to generalize on men — but not because they thought it was their destiny or they thought that the world couldn't survive without them,” Heitkamp says. “Voters tend to believe that women are motivated not by power and ego, but women are motivated because they want to see a change in the world.”
And female leaders often find a way to work together to make that change.
“Women are natural collaborators. They're solutions-oriented,” says Ariel Hill-Davis, founder and policy director for Republican Women for Progress, a group that supports GOP women who want to run for office. “I think if you look at, specifically, the women that are in the Senate right now, they work really closely together. They obviously do not believe in the exact same things, but they support each other where they can. They actually have a lot of legislation.”
More female leaders are exactly what Americans need right now, says Michael Steele, the first African American to chair the Republican National Committee. Steele also made history in 2002 by becoming the first African American elected to statewide office as lieutenant governor of Maryland.
“Women tackle problems differently than men do. They bring a different temperament, and I think our politics need that. Our politics have gotten hot. It's gotten disjointed,” Steele says. “Oftentimes, the cooler head is going to be the woman who comes to the table or comes into the room and looks at everybody and says, ‘You all need to grow up and start to bring things back to a rational point.’”
A 2015 study found that female senators worked with each other more frequently, were more likely to work across the political aisle, and were more active legislatively than their male counterparts.
“Women, when there are enough of them in the room, bring a levelheadedness and a willingness to walk across the aisle to work toward solutions,” Hill-Davis says. “If you're looking at 10 different things and you don't agree on nine of them, we find that women are usually pretty good at finding that one thing that they can agree on and building from there.”