A record number of women will be elected to Congress this year, CNN projects – but barely.
The 149 women who will serve in the US House and Senate in the 118th Congress will expand the ranks of female representation by just two members above the record set by this Congress.
Alaska carried women across that threshold on Wednesday night when the state determined through its ranked-choice voting system that Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat, will represent the state’s at-large House seat for a full term after winning the special election earlier this year, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski will win reelection.
Women will break an overall record in the House, with 124 taking office in January.
And not only will women of color break records in the 118th Congress, but within the House alone, there will also be a record number of both Latinas and Black women. There will be four more Latinas in the House for a total of 18 – the most ever – and one more Black woman, bringing their total from 26 to 27.
More than half of the incoming class of 22 freshman women in the House will be women of color, showing the increasing diversity of that chamber.
“We’ve seen a pretty steady increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of women as candidates, nominees, and then officeholders at the congressional level, but more specifically, in the US House,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.
“That diversity is still hugely lacking in the US Senate. … We’re seeing stasis there in terms of the number of women of color overall. The number of Asian and Latino women specifically will stay the same, and the number of Black women will stay the same at zero.”
Rep.-elect Sydney Kamlager of California is one of those new voices coming to the House. A state senator, she was elected to replace retiring Rep. Karen Bass, who will become the first female mayor of Los Angeles. Kamlager said while she is excited about the diversity of the freshman class, there is still a long way to go.
“I think folks have to stop giving lip service to Black women and brown women and put the money where the mouth is. The fact remains that Black and brown women face higher barriers of entry into this work than other women and men,” the Democrat said. “When we run, our contributions are less oftentimes than men. We are held to higher and double standards,” she added, noting that female candidates are still often asked why they are not “home taking care of your husband or your children.”
“Folks are OK with a mediocre male candidate but expect the female candidate to be off the charts,” she said.
Rep.-elect Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat, is the first Latina elected to Congress from Colorado. A state representative and the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, she’ll also be just the second female doctor who’s a voting member of Congress. (The first, Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier, won reelection in Washington state.)
“Kind of sad that it took until 2022,” Caraveo said, reflecting on both milestones.
Her experience in medicine and state politics, she said, prepared her for having to work harder to get “less credit” than her male counterparts.
“It is, unfortunately, something that I’ve seen throughout my time, both in medicine and in politics, and, sadly, a challenge that one gets used to, in some ways, but also, in other ways, continues to be painful,” said Caraveo, a pediatrician.
“Even members of my staff, you know, as they came on board, really noted the different way in which I was treated or perceived as a woman of color compared to some of the other candidates that were able to more easily get meetings or support from different groups,” she added.
Marking the milestone
Still, the moment isn’t lost on these women.
“In Colorado, I didn’t grow up seeing what I am now,” said Caraveo. “The idea of being the first Latina – so not just that it’s a woman but it’s a woman of color – serving in Congress, I hope is going to be make things a little bit easier for the little girls that I’ve taken care of in clinic. So that one day they don’t have to talk about being first of something, their candidacy and their ability to be in office is just a given.”
And Caraveo, who will be representing a new district that Colorado gained in the reapportionment process, also stressed the significance of what more female representation could mean for legislating.
“That sense of collaboration that we approach things with is very different than, I think, what my male counterparts often do,” she said.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans will break a record with 42 women serving in Congress. Murkowski and Republican Sen.-elect Katie Britt of Alabama help bring the number of Republican women in the Senate to nine. And 33 Republican women will serve in the House next year, up from 32 this year.
The incoming class of seven House Republican freshmen includes three Latinas, bringing the total number of Republican Latinas in the House to five.
“Having the diversity of thought and experience is, you know, it’s critical to our representative democracy,” said Rep.-elect Erin Houchin, who noted that she’s the first woman to represent her Indiana district.
“It feels like we’re accomplishing something for the next generation,” she said. “It is meaningful for me in particular to set that example for my own daughters, for young women.”
Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio has seen and beat plenty of records before as the longest-serving woman in the House. When she’s sworn in for another term in January, on the heels of her first competitive reelection in years, she’ll become the longest-serving woman in all of Congress, beating the record set by former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
First elected in 1982, Kaptur has been sounding the alarm about her party being dominated by leadership from the coasts, while the heartland and industrial America – and its struggling middle class – is often forgotten in Washington.
“My most heart-warming achievement is that the tenure represents a voice from the working class of people – who happens to be a woman,” she said.