November 6, 2012: a Terrific Night for Women

Last night was, of course, a great victory for Democrats and liberals. It was also a spectacular night for women. Consider these these numbers:

— We now have a record 20 women in the senate, up from 17 before last night. The class of 2012 includes such wildly gifted newcomers as Massachusetts’ populist firebrand, Elizabeth Warren (Ted Kennedy’s corpse can finally stop spinning!); Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin (the first openly gay senator in U.S. history); North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp (who pulled off a stunning upset victory over Tea Partier Rick Berg); and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono. Twenty is still a long way off from 50, which would be true parity. And the U.S. lags way behind other countries when it comes to women’s representation in government; in 2010, pathetically, 89 out of 186 countries outranked us on that score.

But folks, I remember when the number of women in the senate was a lowly two. That was in 1992; that year, when the famous post-Anita Hill “Year of the Woman” occurred, the number of female senators increased to a then-record six, including the senate’s first, and still only, female African-American member, Carol Moseley-Braun. Increasing the number of women in the senate is important for many reasons; among them is that the closer we get to achieving a critical mass of women there, the sooner we are likely to see a female president (nearly all major party presidential nominees have been senators or governors).

— I haven’t been able to find good numbers about how women candidates fared in the House races. The Center for American Women and Politics has reported that there are currently 73 women in the House of Representatives, or 16.8% of the total. This year, 166 women ran for House seats; 66 of them are incumbents. Last night, one site reported that many of this year’s female challengers were not winning, which is not surprising, given the strong advantages enjoyed by incumbents. Nevertheless, there have been some bright spots. Iraq War vet Tammy Duckworth of Illinois defeated the incumbent Jim Walsh, a Republican with extremist anti-choice views, and Democratic incumbent Lois Capps of California, who was heavily, and unfavorably, redistricted, beat back a strong challenge from Republican Abel Maldonado.

— This was a year of firsts. In addition to the record 20 women in the senate, there were these milestones: Wisconsin elected the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin. Arizona, of all places, may be about to elect the first openly bisexual member of Congress, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema (as of this writing, she holds a narrow lead). With the election last night of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and Democratic Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster, who joined senate incumbents Jean Shaheen (D) and Kelly Ayotte (R), New Hampshire enjoyed the distinction of achieving the nation’s first all-female delegation.

— A good metric for measuring the success of relatively progressive (i.e., pro-choice) female elected officials is to look at the performance of Emily’s List candidates, who are all pro-choice women. By that standard, progressive women did very well indeed. Nine of the ten Emily’s list candidates for the U.S. senate won. Of the 30 Emily’s List candidates for the House, 16 won, 11 lost, and 3 were in races too close to call. Their one gubernatorial candidate, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, also won.

— Women’s victories can be measured not only by who won, but by who lost. One group that fared very badly in this cycle were the pro-choice extremists. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin? He was defeated by the Democratic incumbent, Senator Claire McCaskill. Indiana’s Richard “rape is a gift from God” Mourdock? He is also outta there; Democrat Richard Donnelly is headed to the U.S. Senate instead. Tea Partier Rick Berg, who voted in favor of rape and incest victims getting life in prison if they obtained abortions? Thank Goddess, he, too, is history, defeated by underdog Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in a dramatic upset. Tom Smith, the senate candidate from Pennsylvania who said that his daughter bearing a child out of wedlock would be as bad as if she were raped, also was handed a richly deserved defeat. The odious Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois — who claimed that abortion is never necessary to save the life of the mother, attacked his Democratic opponent Tammy Duckworth for the sin of buying a dress, and is a deadbeat dad, to boot — ended up being crushed by Duckworth, a rout that was very sweet indeed.

I’ll give James Wolcott the last word about these dudes; as he sagely tweeted, “Memo to Republicans: Try running fewer rape philosophers next time.”

— At least as important as the numbers of women elected to national office this year is the way women voted. The exit polls showed that the gender gap was alive and well. It wassignificantly bigger than it was in 2008, and it was decisively responsible for President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney :

According to CNN’s exit polls, 55 percent of women voted for Obama, while only 44 percent voted for Mitt Romney. Men preferred Romney by a margin of 52 to 45 percent, and women made up about 54 percent of the electorate. In total, the gender gap on Tuesday added up+ to 18 percent — a significantly wider margin than the 12-point gender gap in the 2008 election.

Obama did particularly well with unmarried women, who overwhelmingly chose him over Mitt Romney by a margin of 68% to 30%.

The gender gap also put Democrats, especially Democratic women, over the top in senate races, as the exit polls comprehensively demonstrate.

In all, the Democrats had a great night last night, and women were the decisive reason why. This year’s “War on Women” — the brutal attacks on Planned Parenthood, the assault on birth control (culiminating in the right’s vicious vilification of Sandra Fluke), the record numbers of abortion restrictions on abortion wending their way through the state legislatures (the most notorious of these being the “transvaginal probe” laws), the rape-friendly comments by Akin, Mourdock, et al., the refusal of major Republican candidates to endorse even the mildest policies to promote gender equity (such as fair pay, via the Lily Ledbetter Act) — all of these phenomena helped clarify the stakes, and raised women’s consciousness about the dangers the Republican party poses to their freedom and their economic survival. Women came out to the polls in droves — this year, they represented fully 54% of the electorate.

For many years, pundits and political consultants urged Democrats to soft-peddle their support for issues like choice and birth control access; in the Dems’ often misguided quest for the mythical “swing voter,” such issues were considered so controversial that they were rarely mentioned on the campaign trail. Party leaders gave lip service to choice via weaselly formulations such as Bill Clinton’s famous pronouncement that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” But that only succeeding in emboldening the anti-choice forces, resulting in a dramatic, negative impact on abortion access nationwide.

Luckily, this year the Dems woke up and smelled the coffee. They finally realized that pro-women policies were as popular and all-American as apple pie, and that they’d win many more votes than they’d lose by leading with their strengths. Thus, choice and women’s issues were foregrounded during the Democratic convention and throughout the campaign. The shoe was on the other foot as this time, it was Mitt Romney and the Republicans who were afraid to open their mouths about where they stood on choice and Planned Parenthood.

Last night’s results suggest strongly that, in all but the deepest of red states, feminist politics are a winner at the polls. Let’s hope Democratic candidates remember this the next time some Villager pundit or slick, triangulating pollster tries to persuade them otherwise. When the Democratic wing of the Democratic party asserts itself, we all win.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee