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Minnesota's Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar appeared at presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' rally at the University of Minnesota's Williams Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

Women made historic gains in 2018 election, but politics remain 'far' from equal, expert tells UMN

MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite historic wins in the 2018 election, the political playing field is "far from a point of parity" between male and female candidates, according to an expert on gender dynamics in politics.

Speaking at the University of Minnesota on Thursday, Nov. 21, Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics said women ran for and were elected to office in record numbers in 2018, but those gains "didn't upend" the barriers that still persist for female candidates and officeholders.

According to the CAWP's recently released report on the 2018 election, a higher percentage of women occupy seats in state legislatures, statewide offices and U.S. Congress than ever before. But women both before and after an election cycle face media and public biases, more incidents of violence and harassment than their male counterparts and a lack of institutional support.

UMN's Political Science Professor Kathryn Pearson, who moderated Thursday's lecture, also pointed to the concept of "electability," or the question of whether female candidates are considered "likable" by the electorate. Dittmar retorted that "this should not be the question that folks are making it" in the first place.

Look to the the 2018 election results, she said, where a surge of female candidates helped Democrats win the U.S. House majority.

"These were women in competitive purple districts that, if you're thinking about a presidential race, would be quite important," Dittmar said. "The question is always, 'Can they win in the Midwest? (...) Well, that's where these women won."

Dittmar also said there's a lack of support from political institutions, particularly for women of color and female Republicans. She cited a 2009 CAWP study of female state legislators, in which 42% of women of color surveyed said they were discouraged from running in the first place. And for Republican women, Dittmar said the party tends to reject identity politics, whereas the Democratic party has resources like political action fund Emily's List for female candidates.

According to CAWP's recent report, women of color made historic gains in 2018 -- women of color represent nearly half of Democratic women in the U.S. House, for instance -- but "they are still achieving firsts that reveal the persistence of past and present underrepresentation." In Minnesota, those firsts include Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the state's first woman of color elected to statewide executive office, and Minneapolis's Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in U.S. Congress.

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