With most of the nation’s primary elections behind us, a clearer picture of November’s midterm races are starting to take shape. Vermont is now poised to send a woman to Congress for the first time, the last state in the nation to do so. But that expected milestone comes as women still struggle around the U.S. to be elected in equal numbers as men. Lisa Desjardins explains.
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- Judy Woodruff: With most of the nation's primary elections behind us now, we're starting to get a clearer look at the shape of November's races. And now the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress is poised to elect its first. But as congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins explains, that expected milestone comes as women still struggle to be elected in equal numbers as men.
- Lisa Desjardins: To date, 399 women have walked the halls of power in Congress as representatives and senators, and they have come from 49 states. Elizabeth Wohl, Wife of Becca Balint: And now please join me in welcoming my wife, Becca Balint! CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
- Lisa Desjardins: Becca Balint is poised to make Vermont the 50th state, the last to send its first woman to Congress, after she won the Democratic primary in the deep blue green Mountain State this month. Becca Balint (D), Vermont Congressional Candidate: Hello, Brattleboro. It sinking in little by little. It's very exciting. And it's also a little daunting, as you can imagine. Being the first of anything is a challenge, because you want to do right by everybody. You want to make sure you represent the state well.
- Lisa Desjardins: Women wield substantial power in Vermont, one of the first states to elect a female governor. Three of the last four speakers of the House have been women. And Balint is president of the state Senate. But even among supporters, questions sometimes went past her qualifications and to fear of prejudice.
- Becca Balint: There was the sense of, maybe Vermont first isn't ready for a woman in this role and, second, isn't ready for a gay woman. Tonight, together, we all made history, all of us.
- Lisa Desjardins: So what's taken Vermont so long to elect a congresswoman? Michele Swers teaches about women in politics at Georgetown, writing two books and a textbook on the subject. She says, in Vermont and elsewhere, it's a question of opportunity.
- Michele Swers, Georgetown University: Some of what you see going on is that it's just harder for women, as nonincumbents running as challengers in open seat races to get elected.
- Lisa Desjardins: Vermont is a small state with a small delegation in Congress. Seats rarely open. And incumbents have won every time they have run since 1998.
- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT): I'm proud to be Vermont's longest-serving senator.
- Lisa Desjardins: The state's loan House seat indirectly opened up after Senator Patrick Leahy announced his retirement after nearly 50 years.
- Michele Swers: When you're waiting for somebody to retire for that long, it's a pretty long wait to get into Congress.
- Lisa Desjardins: Women account for slightly more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, but are not even 30 percent of the U.S. House and even less, about a quarter, of the U.S. Senate. Why? Swers says there are several factors.
- Michele Swers: Well, there is a lot of research that shows that women need to be asked more, that they're more reluctant to throw their hat in the ring.
- Lisa Desjardins: There are fewer of them in state and local offices, which feed congressional primaries. And big donors are less likely to write them big checks.
- Charles Robbins, Stony Brook University: For many people, if they see a woman's name on the ballot, that that person would have to clear a much higher bar than someone with a traditionally male name.
- Lisa Desjardins: Charles Robbins runs Stony Brook University's Center for Changing Systems of Power. He says gender bias can be subconscious and reach down from one generation to the next, making it difficult for many men and women to picture a woman in charge.
- Charles Robbins: The patriarchy and the male-dominated system has influenced every part of our culture, every part of our society. And no place is that truer than in government and in politics.
- Lisa Desjardins: There's an additional gender divide between the country's two biggest parties. In the House, just 16 percent of Republicans are women. But the figure is 41 percent for House Democrats. Jennifer Carroll, a Republican and former lieutenant governor of Florida, wants to see conservatives catch up.
- Fmr. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll (R-FL): The party itself has not put a concerted effort in to say, we are going to go out and recruit viable females to run for office. But the Democrats have.
- Lisa Desjardins: Carroll is a national spokesperson for Maggie's List, a political action committee that works to recruit and elect conservative women.
- Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY): And, Mr. Chairman, I have a point of order.
- Lisa Desjardins: She says a lack of vocabulary within the GOP doesn't help her cause.
- Fmr. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll: Female candidates have a challenge, in that you cannot come out and say, well, elect me because I'm a female. The guy is going to say, elect me because I'm a strong guy and I'm going to go fight for you.
- Lisa Desjardins: In 2020, Republican women had their best showing ever in the House and now have more than doubled their previous number from 15 to 35.
- Fmr. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll: We saw that we needed to get our conservative female candidates over the finish line in the primaries to compete in a general election. If you don't win the primary, you're not even going to make it to the general election.
- Lisa Desjardins: This 100 years after Montana elected the country's first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin. The state has yet to send its second woman to Washington, as Vermont is poised for its first.
- Becca Balint: I hope I'm making it easier for the next person to come up. That's what I hope.
- Lisa Desjardins: Meanwhile, women's gains in Congress and state legislatures aren't matched at the highest rungs.
- Michele Swers: When it comes to governors, people seem to trust women more as legislators. Legislature is a more of a consensus-building type of position. And executive leadership is harder.
- Lisa Desjardins: Nineteen states still haven't elected a woman as governor. Nancy Pelosi remains the only woman elected to lead either chamber of Congress. And, while Kamala Harris is second in command, the country is still waiting on its first female commander in chief.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.