Mar 6, 2020 - Politics & Policy

International Women's Day and the glass ceiling

Data: Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Women running for national and state office may be on track to break the record-setting runs and gains of 2018, as Republicans try to catch up with their Democratic counterparts.

Yes, but: The Super Tuesday results, and Elizabeth Warren's withdrawal, effectively ended any chance that this will be the year a woman wins the presidency. On International Women's Day this weekend, it's worth remembering that the struggle to reach the White House masks a lot of real progress at lower levels.

Driving the news: International Women's Day is Sunday, and the U.S. also observes March as Women's History Month. Every year, this is an opportunity to take stock of women's gains, starting with politics — the arena in which nations define who's in charge and what they stand for.

  • Each day next week, Axios will examine other measures of women's gains in society.

The big picture: Congress counts its highest number of women after the historic 2018 midterm elections, and there's a push to go higher.

  • Senate races: 17 female candidates already have filed and 45 more are likely, for a potential of 62, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That would surpass the previous record of 53 in 2018.
  • House races: As of late February, there were 584 women running or likely to run, compared with 437 two years earlier, per the center.
  • That includes 217 Republican female candidates for the House this year — a sharp increase from 2018, when there were just 96. Democrats have increased their numbers a bit, too.
  • The most powerful woman in American politics today is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But it's not just Congress. There's also progress in the state legislatures:

  • Nevada's legislature made history last year when women captured a bare majority of the seats in both chambers. New Hampshire and Colorado have hit majority milestones for individual chambers.
  • There's potential for female majorities in legislatures that are around the 40% range now, including Vermont, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

Reality check: The door's been flung open for women seeking the presidency, yet with Warren's withdrawal from the race, we're on course for a general election that pits a white man in his 70s against a white man in his 70s.

  • Voters' fears about "electability" — even if unfounded — hurt female candidates running for the highest office in the land, experts say, especially women of color.

A record-breaking six women (including two of color) were among the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest.

  • Now, only Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii remains a candidate — and with just one delegate after Super Tuesday, she won't be a factor in the rest of the contests.
  • But there's significant pressure for a male Democratic presidential nominee to choose a woman as his running mate.

"This constant drumbeat of, 'Who's electable?' is based on poor analysis of women as candidates," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "Women in general win at about the same rate as men do in comparable races."

  • In 2018, she noted, "it was women who flipped the House from red to blue. It was women who turned governorships around the country. Women outperformed men both in the primary and in the general."
  • "But it did not seem to translate into the narrative" of the presidential race, she said. "And I think that has gotten us a set of candidates that are old and white and male."

Between the lines: August marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote, so we'll see the theme of women's political power get more attention than usual in the 2020 elections.

One fun thing: The nation is torn over whether America is ready for a socialist president, but you can thank socialism and the labor movement for International Women's Day.

  • The Socialist Party of America organized a National Women's Day in 1909, as women pushed for equal rights, suffrage and better working conditions.
  • International observations took hold two years later. For years, the movement grew mostly in socialist and communist nations.
  • Starting in 1975, the United Nations designated March 8 of each year as International Women's Day.
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