The 1992 elections were proclaimed the "year of the woman" and, for the first time in history, the number of women in the U.S. Senate began to creep upward. Four women were elected in 1992; that brought the total of women in the U.S. Senate to six.
For years, the path of career advancement for women in the political world was to join the Democratic party. Women tend to be more liberal than men and so this made sense; of course they would find an ideological home in the the more progressive of the two political parties. At the same time, the Democratic party made a much greater effort to funnel talented women into the leadership pipeline, supporting their ambitions and advancing the issues which mattered to women.
There were exceptions, of course. For example, in 1978 Kansas elected a Republican woman to the U.S. Senate in the form of Nancy Kassebaum. Kassebaum came from a Republican political dynasty of sorts (her father was Alf Landon) and she was an exception. Most women in American politics were Democrats.
Though their numbers were slim at the national level, many more women served in state legislatures, where party representation was more equal, though the Democrats still enjoyed an edge when it came to female candidates. A number of political scientists identified this as the talent pipeline and they were confident that the number of women seeking (and winning election) to national office would continue to rise.
I've been thinking about all this because this year, 2010, may actually be the year of the woman. There are plenty of Democratic women in races big and small and that's good. But the main reason that 2010 is breaking ground in terms of gender is that there are a host of races with Republican women facing off against Democrats, a sign that both parties are now hospitable to female candidates.
Most of these Republican women are not candidates I find impressive, at least when it comes to the issues which matter to me. But I am heartened to see so many women seeking office. In terms of Senate candidates, the GOP has Sharron Angle in Nevada; Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and Carly Fiorina in California (she's running against Democrat Barbara Boxer). The Democrats, long the leader when it comes to women candidates, are in the mix as well. In North Carolina, Elaine Marshall is seeking to win a Senate seat. Robin Carnahan of Missouri is looking to translate her state-wide popularity into a Senate victory. Incumbent Democrats Patty Murray from Washington, Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, Barbara Boxer from California, and Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas are seeking to stay in Washington D.C.
The upshot is the 2010 election cycle might see the number of women in the U.S. Senate rise from sixteen to twenty-one. For my personal politics, it will be no great victory should these GOP women win their races. But from a demographic point of view, the prospect of one-fifth of the Senate finally being women is awfully exciting, especially for prospect of gender equality that it represents for today's boys and girls.