NPR logo Number Of Women In Congress Set To Drop, Ending 30-Year Trend


Number Of Women In Congress Set To Drop, Ending 30-Year Trend

Republican Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte hit the streets of Manchester, N.H., Wednesday to thank her supporters. Ayotte won the seat vacated by Judd Gregg. Cheryl Senter/FR62846 AP hide caption

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Cheryl Senter/FR62846 AP

The midterm elections weren't very kind to female candidates, despite early stories that deemed 2010 as The Year of the Woman. In fact, the number of women in Congress is poised to drop for the first time in 30 years, if current projections hold true.

One of the only bright spots for female candidates was the fact that three states elected women as their governors for the first time. That was the case in South Carolina (Nikki Haley), Oklahoma (Mary Fallin) and New Mexico (Susana Martinez). And Arizona elected Republican Jan Brewer, who had taken over for Gov. Janet Napolitano.

But women had a tough time in other races. Candidates like Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle drew a lot of attention, but lost. The same fate befell Democratic incumbents like Blanche Lincoln in the Senate and Betsy Markey, Carol Shea-Porter, Suzanne Kosmas, and Dina Titus in the House.

Democratic women were in office at a time when Republicans used anti-incumbent momentum to pick up seats in Congress. As American University's Jennifer Lawless writes on her XX Factor blog:

In the House, the percentage of women appears to have decreased from 17 to 16 percent.  This might not seem like a major loss, but it is the first time women have seen a setback in their raw numbers in the last 30 years.  Despite all the attention devoted to high-profile female candidates this election cycle, we did not even come close to experiencing a "Year of the Woman."

Even before Tuesday's vote, political analysts had begun to discount the likelihood that 2010 would bring big gains in the number of women holding high political office.

A couple of weeks ago, NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, about the perception that women were making huge gains in American politics:

Having some high-profile women in politics, such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "gives this sense that the women are everywhere. But the reality still remains that we do not have a record number of women running this time around for the House. ... We're barely breaking a record for women serving in the Senate. ... No major breakthroughs in this cycle."

And according to Women's Campaign Forum President Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, the United States has nothing to crow about — despite having 160 women on the ballot in races for spots in Congress and governors' mansions.

As Bennett told CNN, "We're ranked 90th in the world in the number of women in elected office. We trail behind Cuba and Afghanistan," she said, citing data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the percentage of women in national parliaments.

It's worth noting that the first woman to run for president in America did so in 1872 — when U.S. women didn't even have the right to vote.