When the 116th Congress convenes in January, women will make up nearly a quarter of its voting membership – the highest percentage in U.S. history.
A record 102 women will serve in the incoming House of Representatives, comprising 23.4% of the chamber’s voting members. More than a third of those women (35) won their seats for the first time in last month’s midterms. (In addition, four of six nonvoting House members, who represent the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, are women.) And Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is poised to reclaim the House speaker’s gavel she last held from 2007 to 2011.
The midterms also sent five new women to the Senate, more than making up for the two female senators who lost their re-election bids. Arizona Republican Martha McSally, who lost a close Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, got there anyway: She was appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Jon Kyl, who is retiring at the end of the year. All told, 25 women will be serving in the new Senate.
Women have been in Congress for more than a century. The first, Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to the House in 1916, two years after her state gave women the vote. But it’s only been in the past few decades that women have served in substantial numbers. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the 325 women elected to the House since Rankin’s time (including the incoming new members) have been elected since 1992, and nearly half (48%) since 1998.
The pattern is similar in the Senate: 29 of the 56 women who have ever served in the Senate (including the incoming new members) took office in 2000 or later.
Most Americans favor seeing more women in such jobs, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey: 59% of adults say there are too few women in high political offices. Women are far more likely than men to say that’s the case; so are Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents when compared with Republicans and GOP leaners.
There’s less consensus, however, on what the real-world impact would be of more women serving in Congress, with divisions of opinion again by gender and party. In the same Pew Research Center survey, for example, 46% of women said Congress would do a better job of dealing with the country’s problems if more women were elected, but only 30% of men said so. And while 55% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic said a Congress with more female members would do a better job of dealing with the country’s problems, only 18% of Republicans and Republican leaners said that would be the case.
In the incoming Congress, women will make up a much bigger share of the Democratic than Republican caucuses. Women will account for 38% of all House Democrats and 36% of Senate Democrats, compared with 8% of House Republicans and 15% of Senate Republicans. Counting both chambers, there will be 108 Democratic women and 23 Republican women in the new Congress.