The “Year of the Woman” has returned to Pennsylvania.
It happened first in 1992, when a record number of female candidates ran for office and won in reaction to Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination and the Anita Hill hearings. Over the next quarter century, the number of women in Congress and state legislatures continued to grow — but a considerable gender gap has remained.
On Nov. 6, with a record number of women on the ballot, that gap significantly narrowed in Pa.
The commonwealth will send four Democratic women to Congress next year, all from the Philadelphia suburbs: Madeleine Dean (District 4), Mary Gay Scanlon (District 5), Chrissy Houlahan (District 6), and Susan Wild (District 7).
Never before has Pennsylvania sent that many women to the U.S. House at the same time. There are currently zero women in the state’s congressional delegation.
Numbers don’t get much better in the state General Assembly, where just 49 of the 253 members are women. But representation will improve in both chambers next year.
Five female state senators won re-election, while five female non-incumbents definitively won their races, including Lindsey Williams in Allegheny County. As of Wednesday afternoon, Democratic Rep. Tina Davis was trailing Republican Sen. Tommy Tomlinson by a slim margin in the 6th District.
That means at least 12 women will serve in the Pa. Senate next year, up from seven.
In the state House, at least 50 seats will be held by women — up from 42. That number could grow depending on the outcome of some still-contested races.
Closing the gap
Eight of Tuesday night’s winners are alumnae of Emerge Pennsylvania, which trains Democratic women to run for office. Seven flipped seats from red to blue.
Executive Director Anne Wakabayashi described the alums as authentic and “reflective of their districts.” They include child advocate and attorney Liz Hanbidge in the 61st House District and Katie Muth in Senate District 44, who has spoken openly about being a rape survivor.
Their stories allowed the candidates to connect with voters in a way “that we haven’t been able to do in a long time as Democrats,” Wakabayashi told Billy Penn. “I think that’s why we saw the results we did last night.”
Democratic women weren’t the only ones who made gains in Pennsylvania.
Eight Republican women who aren’t incumbents won state House seats, including three that Democrats hoped to pick up in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
And while female Democrats running for House seats in Southwestern Pa. did not win, they fared “pretty darn well” in traditionally Republican areas, according to Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of Chatham University’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.
Take the 44th District in suburban Allegheny County. Retiring Republican Mark Mustio was last challenged by a Democrat in 2012 and won 62 to 38 in the general election. This time around, Republican Valerie Gaydos beat Democrat Michele Knoll by a much slimmer margin, 52-48.
“Regardless of gender, it’s not surprising that Republican candidates prevailed,” Sweet-Cushman said, noting that the Democrats “were much stronger candidates than they usually are.”
An initial examination of exit polling, Sweet-Cushman said, showed voters avoided pulling straight-ticket. This allowed them to cast votes for Democrats like Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey to send a message to President Trump, but also vote for a different party down ballot.
Across the state in Southeastern Pa., women also narrowed the gap between Democrats and Republican incumbents. Emerge’s Wakabayashi pointed to Sara Johnson Rothman in the 151st District in Montgomery County. When incumbent Republican Todd Stephens was challenged in 2016 by a Democrat, he won 61 to 39. This time, Rothman came within three points of beating Stephens.
“Even when we didn’t win the race, we competed in ways that we haven’t in a long time,” Wakabayashi said, “thanks to types of candidates who were running.”
Is the future female?
In 2018, 26 years after the first “Year of the Woman,” people involved with getting female candidates elected to office are determined to make sure they’re creating a lasting movement, not just a moment.
“We hadn’t had the infrastructure in the past to keep the momentum going,” Wakabayashi said. Now, “we have so many resources out there for candidates.”
In addition to training women on the nuts and bolts of running for office, Emerge Pennsylvania maintains relationships with party leadership so their candidates can get the attention and resources they need, Wakabayashi said. Then there’s the growing alumnae network.
Rep. Carolyn Comitta, an Emerge alum who represents part of Chester County, won her first election by just 25 votes. This year, she won comfortably — as did her chief of staff, Christina Sappey, beating a freshman incumbent in the 158th.
“Carolyn is an amazing example of what Emerge is about,” Wakabayashi said. “The highest in our core values is that Emerge women reach back and bring up other women.”
To Chatham’s Sweet-Cushman, it seemed remarkable how natural it was to see “all these women’s names on our ballots.”
A change in thinking is key, she added. As Pennsylvania sees more female candidates, the more normal it becomes. That will spur more women to run, parties to recruit more female candidates, and voters to donate money without thinking about gender.
“Ultimately, the goal is that women are seamlessly part of the political landscape,” she said. “This was a big step in going in that direction in a way that ’92 was not.”