Stop Calling 2018 ‘The Year Of The Woman’

by Leah Askarinam October 15, 2018 · 11:30 AM EDT

Declaring 2018 anything but the Year of the Woman is heresy by now. It’s consistently, casually mentioned as a matter of fact. This year‘s regarded as a natural succession to 1992, which was the last time an election resulted in the number of women in the House increasing by double digits. But a deeper dive demonstrates more modest gains are on the horizon, according to calculations based on Inside Elections’ current ratings.

Of course, not so long ago, 2016 was sometimes called the Year Of the Woman too, when it seemed inevitable that Hillary Clinton would clinch the presidency. (Full disclosure: I was also at least somewhat guilty in joining that chorus.)  

Before 2016 and 1992, the first year of the woman was originally expected to be 1984, when a woman joined a major party presidential ticket. But in November of that year, columnist Maureen Dowd published a cold dose of reality in the New York Times.

“It was billed as the Year of the Woman in American politics,” Dowd wrote. “In the heady days after Geraldine A. Ferraro's historic ascent to the Democratic Vice-Presidential nomination, women's groups predicted an outpouring of volunteers, money and votes that would buoy female candidates of both parties. Now, on the eve of the election, the effervescence has turned somewhat flat.”

Given the past elections in which a “Year of the Woman” never materialized, it’s OK to be skeptical of the narrative. Ahead of November’s elections, however, it’s already clear that 2018 will be different from previous elections in at least some respects: women are protesting in record numbers, and some women candidates are raking in campaign cash (although a gender gap still persists in fundraising). Plus, women are running for office in record numbers, and a record number of women won their party nomination.

What’s yet to be seen is whether those signs of enthusiasm ultimately translate to votes.

In 1984 and 2016, both women on the presidential ticket lost the election, and neither race resulted in a surge of women being elected down ballot. In 2016, the number of women in the House remained stagnant while the number of women in the Senate grew by one. In 1984, the House added one woman while the Senate added none. In 1992, on the other hand, the actual Year of the Woman, the number of women in the Senate grew from 3 to 7, while the number of women in the House surged from 28 to 47, a 68 percent growth.

It’s nearly impossible for 2018 to match 1992 in terms of the number of women voted to the Senate. The Senate will add at least one woman from Arizona to its ranks, as Reps. Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema compete for Sen. Jeff Flake’s open seat. In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen could unseat GOP Sen. Dean Heller. And in Tennessee, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn is competing against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for GOP Sen. Bob Corker’s open seat. (Caveat: If Sinema wins, it’s possible that McSally will be appointed to replace Sen. Jon Kyl, meaning there would be four more women in the Senate.)  But it’s also possible for women to lose seats, considering more than half of the 23 women in the Senate are up for re-election this year, the most vulnerable being Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill.

In the House, where there are currently 84 congresswomen, it’s also within the realm of possibility that Democrats can meet 1992’s record of adding 19 women to the House. Based on Inside Elections’ current ratings and calculations, it’s possible the number could grow to as many as 126.

But despite the record number of women candidates this year, electoral dynamics limit room for net growth in the number of women serving in Congress. Thirteen congresswomen are not seeking re-election, and women candidates are positioned to win fewer than half of those open seats. And of the districts where men aren’t running for re-election, only four feature races including women nominees from both parties. Another eight women are heavily favored to win, and eleven are running competitive races against men. There are also four woman incumbents fielding credible challenges from male nominees. At this point in the cycle, it’s possible— though unlikely — that the number of women in the House could actually remain at 84. (Subscribers can read a complete breakdown of our projections for women in the House on page six of our latest issue.)

But declaring 2018 The Year of The Woman isn’t just problematic because it’s a premature assessment of a series of uncertain elections; it’s also a pessimistic outlook for the future of women in politics.

Even in the best case scenario, where women win every race in which they’re competitive, the number of women in the House would increase by 42, meaning women would make up 29 percent of the House, a 50 percent increase relative to the current representation.

A double-digit increase in the number of women in the House counts as progress. And there’s plenty of evidence that women’s participation in politics has grown: the #MeToo movement, the sounds of women’s voices protesting at the confirmation vote of Brett Kavanaugh, the Women’s March, and state legislatures adding women to their ranks.

Still, women are nowhere near reaching parity in Congress.

“I really don’t like the term [‘Year of the Woman’] because it implies in some way you’ll have this year and suddenly women will achieve gender parity,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“This is not a problem that will be solved in one election cycle,” she added.