When the winners of the Nov. 7 elections are sworn in in January, Democratic women – and some Republicans – will have cause to cheer: The House will have its first female speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. Congress will have its largest corps of women ever – 16 in the Senate and at least 71 in the House, from both parties.
And in the states, women will hold nine governorships, tied with the record set in 2004, and other elective statewide jobs that could position them for higher office. Sarah Palin (R) will become Alaska's first woman governor. For the first time, the chair of the National Governors Association will be a woman, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona.
In state legislatures, a record 2,426 women were general-election candidates, and unofficial results show 1,735 winning, which would be a record. In addition, women appear set to build on their record number of top leadership spots in state legislatures.
Women voters were also pivotal this year. While a majority of both women and men nationwide voted Democratic on Nov. 7 – 56 percent of women and 51 percent of men – the gender gap proved decisive for Democrats in a handful of key Senate races.
In Virginia, where Democrat Jim Webb beat Republican incumbent George Allen by a fraction of a percent, 55 percent of women voted for Mr. Webb versus 45 percent of men. In particular, it was women of color who made the difference.
In Montana, where race was not a factor, 52 percent of women voted for the Democrat, Jon Tester, versus 48 percent of men. Mr. Tester beat incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R) by just a few thousand votes.
In Missouri, 51 percent of women voted for Democrat Claire McCaskill, who beat incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R), while only 46 percent of men did. As in Virginia, it was African-American women who made the difference.
Was this another Year of the Woman? Not exactly. Back in 1992, women made stunning gains, jumping from 32 to 54 House members and from two to six senators. Since then, the gains have been steady. The Senate is now at a record 16 women, and women in the House have averaged an increase of one or two seats per year. This year, the increase in the House was a little larger than usual – at least four seats. (In Louisiana, the Dec. 9 runoff between two Democrats, Rep. William Jefferson and challenger Karen Carter, could put another woman in the House. In Florida, Vern Buchanan (R) was certified the winner Monday in his tight race against Democrat Christine Jennings, but Ms. Jennings is suing.)
Ultimately, women remain far from achieving equality. In the next Congress, the record 87 women members will represent 16 percent of the 535 seats. In state legislatures, women currently hold 1,686 of the 7,382 seats, or 22.8 percent. In statewide elective executive office – positions such as governor, attorney general, and secretary of state – women hold 78 of the 315 positions, or 24.8 percent. (The figure will drop to 76 in January.)
The key, say women political activists, is that most of the numbers continue to head upward. "And certainly, 2006 is the year of the woman leader," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, pointing to Ms. Pelosi and the incoming state legislative leaders. In addition, California's two Democratic woman senators will chair committees starting in January, with Dianne Feinstein running the Rules Committee and Barbara Boxer running Environment and Public Works.
At EMILY's List, a political action committee that helps Democratic woman candidates who support abortion rights, 2006 was by far the group's busiest year. The group endorsed, funded, and advised a record number of candidates, including 19 women who were Democratic nominees for Republican-held House seats. Of those, 16 were in races considered competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. So far, with four races still undecided, only two women have won, a point that has raised eyebrows. Among the 36 Democratic men running in competitive, Republican-held districts, 22 won.
Many of the most highly touted EMILY's List candidates – including Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Diane Farrell of Connecticut, and Lois Murphy of Pennsylvania – did not win.
Did gender play a role in any of the races? Officials at EMILY's List say it's impossible to say, but they are now analyzing each contest in depth. Three of the still-undecided races involve two woman candidates, so gender could not be a factor there. On a Seattle Times blog, debate raged last week over why Democratic challenger Darcy Burner lost narrowly to Rep. David Reichert (R). Times reporters cited e-mails from Ms. Burner, who suggested that being female hurt her – especially at a time of war.
Woman political activists say that the big picture is what counts – and in the end, a record number of women will take seats in Congress come January. The increasing ranks of women at lower levels of government mean that the farm team for future, higher-level races is growing, they add.
Still, building toward gender equality remains a steep climb. "If it were easy to get women elected, we wouldn't need to exist," says Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List. "And trying to get newcomers elected on top of that is probably the toughest job in politics."