A record number of women – 127 – are in Congress. Yet they account for less than a quarter of the seats in the U.S. Capitol.
For the first time, one of the four political party caucuses at the Indiana General Assembly is majority female, with women occupying 17 of the 33 Democratic Party seats in the House. But three-quarters of all 150 seats in the House and Senate belong to men, and a woman has never been the House speaker or the Senate president pro tem.
Women fill five of the seven state administrative positions; they include Suzanne Crouch, the state's fourth female lieutenant governor. But Indiana is among 20 states never to have had a female governor.
No woman has been U.S. president. But after Hillary Clinton became the first major-party female presidential candidate in 2016, winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College count, several women are running for the Democrats' 2020 nomination. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California have been among polling leaders.
“From that perspective, it's an exciting time,” Kristina Sheeler, a professor of communications and women's studies at IUPUI. “But when you look at overall numbers, it's still really low in terms of percentage of representation in politics. We have a long way to go to reach parity with men.”
Sheeler wonders why female lieutenant governors – Democrat Kathy Davis or Republicans Becky Skillman or Sue Ellspermann – have failed to emerge as gubernatorial candidates in the Hoosier State.
“I want to know why the party hasn't just all-out supported that person who would ostensibly be the next in line. In the state of Indiana, I think the biggest obstacle is party,” Sheeler said.
Skillman said she was starting to organize a gubernatorial campaign and had raised a lot of money but wasn't sure she wanted to pursue the governor's office. She recalls having had a sense of “get out of my way, I want this” when she ran for a state Senate seat in southern Indiana but lacked the same drive to run for governor.
“Once I said I'm not doing it, I was so at peace,” she said. “My saddest moment was that I might have let down a lot of women. I might have been the first woman (to be elected governor), but we'll never know.”
Jill Long Thompson was the first major-party female candidate for governor when Democrats nominated her in 2008. Long Thompson, who in 1989 became just the fourth Hoosier woman elected to Congress, lost to Republican incumbent Gov. Mitch Daniels.
She agreed that male-dominated political party organizations can be an obstacle to female candidates. Gender stereotypes persist, she said.
“Voters tend to look at men and automatically assume they are competent, but women have to prove they are competent,” said Long Thompson, who represented northeast Indiana in the House in the early 1990s and later was undersecretary of agriculture for rural development for President Bill Clinton.
When she ran for governor, Long Thompson said some voters would direct policy questions to her husband and not to her. It was a type of behavior she said was left over from before she began her political career in the 1980s as a member of the Valparaiso City Council.
“I went to a meeting of a particular farm group and said that I would like to be as helpful and useful as I could in advancing sound farm policy,” she said. “And one of the gentleman leaders of the organization asked me if I could make a good pie.
“I actually can, but ... . There is some thinking like that still,” Long Thompson said.
State Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, said the outdated belief that women should be at home raising children is one reason their numbers lag in the Legislature.
“A man can stay at home and do that, too,” Pryor said. “I think one thing women are very good at is juggling three or four things at one time.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, said women make good lawmakers because they “have so many things on their plates” – running a household, raising children, working outside the home, volunteering in their communities. But those same factors can prevent them from seeking federal office, she said.
“I think the biggest issue with most women, unless they live within driving distance of Washington, D.C., is literally having to separate from their family,” she said. “And that is a huge sacrifice.”
Walorski predicts female representation will increase. For one thing, she said, female voters outnumber male voters. Data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University shows women have cast 10 million more votes than men in each of the last three presidential elections.
“I think women that are the voting base are looking around and saying, 'Hey, we need better representation,'” Walorski said. “Yes, we see more (women) that are running, and yes, we're going to see more proportionately that are elected.”
Also, Walorski said she and other women in Congress are aggressively recruiting female candidates. Those lawmakers “spend a lot of time on the phone, calling potential candidates, encouraging potential candidates, talking to them about what our experiences have been and just being there as a sounding board if they have questions,” she said.
Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5th, is in charge of recruiting Republican House candidates in the 2020 election.
“The women I've talked to have a lot of questions about running, about what it takes to win and what life is like” in Washington, said Brooks, who grew up in Fort Wayne. “The women want to know, how are you making a difference? They don't want to come to D.C. just to fill a seat,” she said.
Women are showing they can make a difference in Washington. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is the House speaker. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney chairs the House Republican Conference, the third-highest leadership position in the caucus. The four progressives known collectively as “The Squad” – Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – have shaken things up. And then there are the female Democrats that are seeking the presidency.
“By having this many women in leadership positions, I think it shows particularly young girls and young women that there is a place for them at the table, that they have a strong voice and they can add to the discussion,” Brooks said – adding that “of course I would prefer that it be a Republican female speaker than a Democrat speaker.”
Brooks and Walorski are among only 13 women who are House Republicans. Brooks expects that number to grow.
“I think you're going to see a very diverse Republican Party come forward in this next election cycle with a lot more women, women of color, women of incredible backgrounds. I am really excited,” she said.
Walorski said, “On the Republican side, we've had dynamite women run in the past, and they're running again. I really believe it's because of culture swings in this country.”
But IUPUI professor Sheeler said female candidates “have to figure out how to present themselves in an authentic manner that resonates with the public. We've got cultural stereotypes to overcome.”