Amber Phillips: The sorry state of female representation in Congress just got slightly better thanks to Tina Smith

Women have made incremental gains in Congress over the past decade, but they seem to have plateaued at 20 percent at all levels of government.

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2015 file photo, Minnesota Democratic Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaks to attendees at the North Star Ball in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is set to name his choice to replace Al Franken in the U.S. Senate, with the top contender seen as Lt. Gov. Smith. Dayton was expected to make the appointment Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, nearly a week after Franken announced his plan to resign over allegations of sexual misconduct. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)

Here’s a pathetic statistic for you: By the end of the day Wednesday, the number of women serving in the Senate at once will hit a record high of 22. Out of 100 seats.

Put another way, slightly more than a fifth of U.S. senators are women; four-fifths are men. This record is hardly a representative ratio, and it underscores women are still a long way from equal representation in Congress.

Tina Smith is the reason there are more Senate women serving now than there ever have been. The former lieutenant governor of Minnesota was nominated to replace Al Franken, D-Minn., who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations.

She is getting sworn in Wednesday and will be Minnesota’s junior senator, making Minnesota the fourth state to have all-female senators. She could stay Minnesota’s junior senator if she wins an election in November for the seat.

Women have made incremental gains in Congress over the past decade, but they seem to have plateaued at 20 percent at all levels of government, according to data gathered by the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University:

• The House of Representatives: 19 percent of lawmakers are women. Two states — Mississippi and Vermont — have never sent a woman to Congress. Ever.

• Governors, lieutenant governors and other statewide election officials: 24 percent are women.

• Mayors of the 100 largest cities: 22 percent are women.

• State legislatures: 25 percent are women.

The irony is, when women run, they tend to win at the same rate as men. That’s impressive, given women have to overcome tricky gender dynamics: Research consistently shows women need to come across as likable to get voters to choose them, whereas male candidates do not.

Experts say the real problem is there just are not enough women running for office. The 2016 election was historic for one woman at the very top getting her party’s nomination, but female representation in Congress stayed at around 20 percent.

“For all of the talk of this being a change election, it was not a change election for women in politics,” Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, told The Post after the election. “We just aren’t seeing enough of them.”

That could change in a big way in 2018. A record number of women are running for office at all levels of government next year. The numbers, tallied by the Center for American Women in Politics, are astounding.

• There are 22 women serving in the Senate; 46 are running in the two major parties in 2018.

• There are 84 women serving in the House; 383 are running in 2018.

• There are just six female governors; 79 women are running to be governor in 2018, on track to double a previous record.

Since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, nonpartisan and partisan advocates say women are getting involved in politics in a way the United States hasn’t seen since the feminism movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Progressive political groups such as Emily’s List say more than 20,000 women have reached out to them to inquire about help running for office. Nonpartisan political training camps for female candidates are filled to the max.

Will all these women win and in one election equalize the gender balance of power in politics? No, of course not. So far in the era of President Trump and #MeToo, a sizable number of women who run are winning. In Virginia’s state elections in November, 11 Democratic women knocked out men, boosting the number of women in the 100-member state House by nearly 60 percent.

“2018 is shaping up as a political climate ripe for women’s political advancement,” said Kelly Dittmar, an expert in women in politics at Rutgers University.

Much of this activism is taking place on the left. Indeed, a female political candidate is much more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican. The majority of new female candidates running for governors’ mansions and Congress are Democrats.

Republicans are trying to capitalize on this moment, too. GOP donors are launching groups to help more women get elected as a counterweight to Democratic groups that have existed for decades.

That’s partly out of necessity. There are only 26 Republican women in Congress, and Roll Call calculates nearly a quarter of House Republican women aren’t coming back next term.

In the Senate, Republican women are setting themselves up to increase their numbers from the five GOP female senators serving now.

In Arizona to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R, three women are running or preparing to run (Rep. Martha McSally, R, Kelli Ward, R, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D). In Tennessee to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R, is a front-runner.

In a sentence, things right now for women in politics are: meh, but could soon get much better.

Amber Phillips | The Washington Post

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.