The 2012 election cycle was as good as it's ever gotten for women in United States politics. Issues relevant to women were at the forefront for much of the election cycle, and more women were elected to both houses of Congress than ever before in the nation's history.
Women's issues became hot button topics during the campaign, as presidential candidate Mitt Romney sparred with President Barack Obama over the best way to approach contraceptive coverage, abortion, and social programs for impoverished mothers.
When the dust had settled, there were two new United States records: 20 women in the Senate, up from the previously record-setting 17, and at least 81 women in the House of Representatives. These weren't the only records being broken—America's first Hindu congresswoman and its first Buddhist congresswoman were also elected, and Tammy Baldwin became the first American senator to be openly gay.
Several of the most hotly contested races changed significantly in the polls when Republican candidates who had previously been considered safe started discussing their policies on rape exceptions for abortions. While the majority of the American public has historically supported rape and incest exceptions to abortion laws, several Republican lawmakers criticized these exceptions. Some even went so far as to say that pregnancy from rape was part of a divine plan.
This extreme point of view led to a significant gender gap in votes for Democratic and Republican politicians. Several states showed 5-10 point gender gaps, with women in favor of President Obama over Mitt Romney while men favored the challenger.
Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, announced at a rally this week that she would be staying on as the lead Democrat in the House. The former speaker also saluted the newest women to make it to the houses of Congress.
It has been a slow and not always steady climb for women to reach their current numbers in Congress. The first Congresswoman was Jeannette Rankin, whose husband was a Congressman who died during his term in 1919. She took over the remainder of her husband's term and made history.
The first woman of color to be elected to the United States Congress was Patsy Mink in 1964, a Hawaiian representative of Asian descent, while the first Black woman to be elected to Congress was Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968. Only one woman of color has served in the United States Senate to date: Carol Moseley Braun, who represented the state of Illinois for a single term from 1993 to 1999.
As women become more important to American electoral politics, some observers believe it is likely that the numbers of women in Congress will continue to rise. However, whether the increasing female influence on Congressional committees and offices will have an effect on the current level of divisiveness in the legislative body remains to be seen.
Sources: senate.gov, house.gov, Washington Post