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Speaker: Yes, 2018 was a good year for women in politics. No, that doesn’t mean American politics is equitable.

At an event at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said that while women are serving in greater numbers than ever, they still make up less than a third of Congress or members of state legislatures. 

Professor Kathryn Pearson, left, interviewing Professor Kelly Dittmar at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Thursday.
Professor Kathryn Pearson, left, interviewing Professor Kelly Dittmar at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Kelly Dittmar says that she and her colleagues at the Center for American Women and Politics found themselves serving as “wet blankets” for reporters doing articles on the apparent surge of women candidates in 2018.

“Yes, it’s a good year,” she would say to reporters, “but here are the challenges.” 

The caution was first expressed in a Huffington Post op-ed in the spring of 2018, in which she and coauthor Deborah Walsh urged women candidates and their advocates to “underpromise and overdeliver.”

“We were seeing the narrative of the surge and how it was going to be the biggest year for women, and we were concerned we were putting ourselves in the same box that happened in 1992,” Dittmar said during a Thursday event at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs about a previous “year of the woman.”

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“We also made the case that identifying any single year as the Year of the Woman is problematic,” said Dittmar, a professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers and coauthor of the study, “Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond.”

“By focusing on an unlikely confluence of factors as necessary to yield progress for women candidates, we risked perpetuating the idea that women’s political successes is an anomaly.” 

Dittmar prefaced a recitation of statistics from 2018 by saying it would include a lot of “buts.” By the end of the 2018 election, women candidates did overdeliver, she said, but the job of gender equity in politics wasn’t done. Women still made up less than 25 percent of candidates on primary election ballots for congressional and gubernatorial seats, and were less than one third of candidates on general election ballots for congress, statewide office, and state legislative seats. “The story in the media — record numbers — but we forgot the denominator,” Dittmar said.

On the Democratic side, women were responsible for more than 50 percent of the flipped seats and were therefore responsible for Democrats regaining majority control in the U.S. House. Women serve in Congress and state legislatures in greater numbers than ever, she said, but they still total less than a third of elected officials in these offices.

And the gains were entirely among Democratic women. The number of Republican members of the House who are women declined from 23 to 13 and also declined in state legislatures and statewide executive offices.

Women of color also had record success, Dittmar said. Even so, a majority of states — 26 — have never sent a woman of color to Congress. And while there have now been 50 women of color elected to statewide executive offices in U.S. history, there are currently 311 such offices; men hold 220 of them.

Dittmar pointed out one statistic that disrupts a misconception that women of color can win only in majority-minority districts. In 2018, 40 percent of the women of color elected to the U.S. House were elected from majority-white districts, including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis.

“I think women leveraged a moment in which they could talk about a distinct value of having more gender diversity and experiential diversity in office in a way that in previous elections had not been valued by voters,” Dittmar said. Partly due to the Me Too movement, “they were questioning the imbalance in our institutions and thinking maybe that hasn’t gotten us where we need to go.”

Kathryn Pearson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, asked Dittmar to analyze an issue that many women candidates face: the question of electability.

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Dittmar said the success of women candidates in 2018, including providing the margin for controlling the U.S. House, should provide part of the answer. And while Hillary Clinton did not win the Electoral College vote, she did win more of the popular vote than Donald Trump. “The idea that women can’t win over voters? Well, they did,” she said. 

But the idea raises other challenges for women candidates. First, they have to spend time answering the question, while men do not. And, “preordaining electability based on who has won in the past will perpetually discriminate against those who have not been in power.”

Dittmar pushes back against another narrative of the 2018 election about women. That is, that most decided to run the morning after the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s election. She said an examination of public statements by women candidates in 2018 about why they were running does contain some references to threats from Trump policies. Far more common, however, were concerns about specific issues.

“It’s not surprising when you’re out in public talking about why you ran for office it should be about policy and not, ‘I just want the power,’” she said. “But there is some emotional piece to this, that emotion matters in terms of perception of threats. Democratic women were certainly using that language. The 2016 election did influence some of them.”

But Dittmar said she noticed something else — a difference between white candidates and candidates who were women of color. “Black women were the least likely to publicly express a perception of threat as the motivating force,” Dittmar said. 

Her theory is that’s because perception of threat is not new to black women. And to move someone to run, there must be a sudden change in the threat, one that produces an “oh my gosh” feeling.

“Black women have not had the privilege of feeling free of threat from political and governmental institutions,” she said.

Asked about U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s statement that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wouldn’t be a presidential contender if he was a woman because his experience is relatively thin, Dittmar said she agreed. 

“It’s hard to measure because it is so pervasive,” Dittmar said. But she cited a study in which men and women voters were asked to consider candidates and were more likely to seek out measures of competency and experience for women candidates than for men. “The root of that is doubts about women’s ability, in part because we haven’t seen as many women in office,” she said.

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Dittmar also warned against seeing women voters are monolithic, that they all vote in similar ways for similar reasons. To illustrate, she said that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump and that many women see party or economic situation as more important than gender. Yet college-educated white women favored GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 6 percentage points in 2012 yet favored Hillary Clinton in 2016 by six percentage points.

“We allow men to have diverse opinions, beliefs, behaviors, identities even how they look and present themselves, even within the same party,” she said. “But often we don’t allow that from women.”

Pearson asked Dittmar for her advice to young women, including some attending the session Thursday, who might consider running. “What you should take from 2018 and probably 2020 is to not be dissuaded by the lack of representation of women,” Dittmar said. “There are a lot of people in these positions that don’t look like me. But the data we have does show that we’re seeing women lead in a lot of the change in these institutions. Take from that an interest in being part of that change.” 

And her advice, she said, applies to women of both parties. “If you are a conservative, we need you even more right now to be part of the change in representation,” she said.