On January 3rd 132 women took the oath of office to be a Member of Congress. Included in this number are 25 Senators, 102 Representatives and 5 delegates. This is the largest number of women who have ever served in Congress at one time.

While many have greatly lauded this great leap upward over the 112 women who were M.C.s during 115th Congress, few have noted that this gain was almost entirely among Democrats. Of the 36 women elected to the House for the first time, only one is a Republican. Of the 3 new Senators, only one is a Republican.

Since two Democratic women Senators were defeated for re-election, the number of Democratic women stayed at 17, while the number of Republican women went from 6 to 8 in the Senate. In the House Democratic women increased their presence from 64 to 91, while Republican women lost seats, going from 25 to 16.

Women are now 25 percent of both houses of Congress, but not of both parties. Women are over one-third of the Democratic Caucus in both houses (36% and 39%), 15 percent of Republicans in the Senate, and only 8 percent of Republicans in the House.

This is also true in the state legislatures. Excluding Nebraska, which has a non-partisan, unicameral legislature, women are entering 2019 as 31.2 percent of Democrats and 17.2 percent of Republicans in the state legislatures.

In the last thirty years, a party gap has developed among elected officials because the Democrats run and elect more women than do the Republicans at every level. The party gap is not the same as the gender gap — the fact that in most elections a higher percentage of women vote for the Democrats than do men — but it is just as important.

Both have grown larger, but the party gap is now a chasm.

The party gap is not new but it has been largely ignored. Pundits have plotted the growth of women elected to public office without noting the distinct partisan difference. For example, they report that women will be 28.9 percent of all state legislators in 2019, ranging from 14.2 percent in West Virginia to 50.8 percent in Nevada, but don’t provide the breakdown by party in each legislature.

It was in the state legislatures that the party gap first emerged, in the 1980s. In 1981, women were about 12 percent of both the Republican and Democratic state legislators. Their proportion among the Democrats rose slowly but steadily to over 31 percent by 2009. Among Republican state legislators the proportion of women rose more slowly, flattened out in the mid-1990s, and fell as the new century began.

The party gap moved to Congress a decade later. In the 101st Congress (1989-1990) women were 6.4 percent of Republicans and 5.6 percent of Democrats. Party distribution shifted with the 1990 elections; in the 102nd Congresswomen were 4.7 percent of Republicans and 6.8 percent of Democrats. In 1992 election, often called “the year of the woman,” there was a big increase in the number of Democratic women elected, but only a small one for Republicans. In the 1980s women had been a greater proportion of Republican than Democratic M.C.s.

Two Native American women were sworn into House of Representatives, Jan. 3, 2019 (Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland)

The absolute number of women in the state legislatures increased annually until the Republicans took over most of those bodies after the 2010 elections. As a result, 210 Democratic women lost their seats, but only 145 Republican women were added to the female roster. The total number of women has been climbing ever since, but much more rapidly among Democrats than Republicans. The preliminary count indicates that there will be 1,427 Democratic women and 664 Republican women (plus 3 independents) in the 2019 state legislatures. 

The gender gap does not explain the party gap. While women are a greater presence among grassroots Democrats than Republicans, the party gap among elected officials is far larger than this alone would predict. The Democratic Party is doing something right by women. The Republican Party would do well to figure out what it is.


Jo Freeman has published 11 books, including three books and many articles on women and politics. This article was originally published by Senior Women Web.