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Rutgers Eagleton weighs in on record number of women in office after midterm elections

<p>Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected as U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district and is one of the many diverse, female faces to enter Congress following this year’s midterm elections.&nbsp;</p>

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected as U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district and is one of the many diverse, female faces to enter Congress following this year’s midterm elections. 

One unique feature of the 2018 midterm elections was the record number of women who ran — and were elected — into office, according to recent data from the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Following the Nov. 6 election, the 116th Congress will have at least 125 women serving overall, increasing the percentage of women in Congress from 20 percent to 23 percent at a minimum. 

Of those 125 women, at least 102 will serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing the percentage of women up to 23 percent from 19.3 percent in 2018. In the Senate, a minimum of 23 women will be serving, matching the current representation of 23 percent, according to the results.

Ruth Mandel, director of Eagleton, put the results into perspective and said she has never seen anything like it before.

“I’ve seen a kind of — we’ll see if this lasts — but an energy, and a kind of awakening to 'we can do this.' There’s a sense of ownership of the public square (among women), as leaders, in a way that you only heard in isolated individual voices before that,” she said. 

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics within Eagleton, agreed. 

As to whether this growth is sustainable and will be repeated in the future, Walsh said it depends on upcoming opportunities and the mood of the electorate.

“We don’t know, it’s very hard to predict,” she said. “There were a lot of opportunities this year, and a general mood and energy that I think we’ll see for at least one or two more cycles. We want to sustain this growth, but since the first re-election cycle is historically the most difficult one, another concern is how these newly elected representatives will keep their seats.”

Mandel said two things that make 2018 different are more positive attitudes about the women serving in politics and the diversity among women elected.

According to Eagleton, of the women newly elected to the House, 43 of them are women of color. In the Senate, four representatives are women of color as well.

“What you’re hearing now is 'it’s a great thing to have women,' and they weren’t saying that so much before,” Mandel said. “The other thing that makes 2018 seem so different is it’s not just that it's women. It is a mix of women … we can’t report these numbers without also reporting so many firsts.”

But despite these gains, women are still not involved in government at the same proportions as men. 

Reasons for the disparity include the forces of history, tradition, culture and expectations of the world in which women and men live, Mandel said.

Passivity being oftentimes ingrained into ideas about femininity is another possible reason, she said.

“Certainly when I was growing up, women didn’t ask a man to dance ... you’re brought up waiting to be asked … we don’t have a history of women proposing to men,” Mandel said.

She said that the act of"putting themselves forward," or "pitching themselves" has not been historically incentivized in women.

“For those who did put themselves forward or thought maybe about putting themselves forward, what was against them? History, culture, expectations, but also, the systems that had been set up,” Mandel said. “The political systems, the domestic systems … women have been seen as the primary caregivers of the family, and that’s a big role.” 

This midterm election, women seemed to rise above those barriers. 

“It feels like what it took was anger … anger at Trump,” Mandel said. “And the irony of his contribution to the advancement of American politics in terms of making it more inclusive, more diverse, younger ... we’ve been running around for years saying to everybody … it’s your country. You want to have it, you should own it. Go out and see if you can get it to look like you and have your priorities be heard.” 

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