2021 was another good year for women running for election

Michelle Wu, Shontel Brown, Winsome Sears
Associated Press - Charles Krupa/Associated Press - J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press - Andrew Harnik

Women made gains up and down the ballot in 2021, previewing what could be another record-breaking year for female candidates running for office in the 2022 midterm elections. 

In large-scale mayoral races, women saw victories in Boston and Durham, N.C., while women also won in 2021’s two lieutenant gubernatorial races. Women also continued to sweep in special congressional races and state legislature races. 

The gains made in 2021 follow historic wins from Republican and Democratic female candidates in 2018 and 2020. The trend is expected to continue going into the midterms. 

“Women are a good investment for the parties, and now it’s on both sides of the aisle,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, which is celebrating its 50th year tracking and researching women in U.S. politics. 

“The 2018 story was very lopsided for the Democrats and the 2021 story we saw women making gains a little bit on the Democratic side, but again, I think a big part of the story were Republican women making some gains.”

Here are the areas female candidates made gains in elected offices in 2021. All data provided is from the Center for American Women in Politics: 

Big city mayoral races 

Women were elected to the mayor’s office in two large cities this year: Boston and Durham.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu made history as the first woman, first Asian woman and first person of color to be elected to the office. Former acting Mayor Kim Janey was the first woman and first person of color to lead the city earlier this year.

Mayor Elaine O’Neal also made history in Durham as the first woman of color and first Black woman to lead the North Carolina city. 

There are currently 32 women serving as mayors in the 100 most populated cities in the U.S.

Congressional districts 

Female candidates also won in a number of highly contested congressional races.

In Ohio, Cuyahoga County Councilmember Shontel Brown (D) won her bid to represent Ohio’s 11th Congressional District in the greater Cleveland area.

The race’s Democratic primary received national attention as Brown and progressive Nina Turner emerged as the front-runners in the intraparty battle.

Brown went on to defeat Republican Laverne Gore in the general election.

In the primary and general election, Brown faced other Black women in Turner and Gore, signaling a growing presence of Black women on the ballot. 

“These are quality problems in the sense of having to make choices,” Walsh said. “The really encouraging sign is that we’re seeing more women of color … running for these offices.” 

“I also think what it reinforces is that women are not monolithic and that women of color are not monolithic,” she added. 

In Florida, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won the special Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic-leaning 20th House District to replace late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). She is heavily favored to win the special election in January. 

Lieutenant governor races 

Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears (R) made history in the Old Dominion when she became the first woman and first Black woman to be elected to the position. Sears defeated Del. Hala Ayala (D), a woman of color, in the general election. 

“The conventional wisdom on the part of party leaders has been that women of color can only win in what are called majority-minority districts, which is very limiting,” Walsh said. “When a Black woman wins in a state like Virginia, it adds to the dispelling of that myth.” 

In New Jersey, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (D) won reelection to a post she first won in 2018. Former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) previously had held the post since 2010.

The lieutenant governor’s office has been seen as a possible pipeline to the governor’s office in a number of states. 

State legislatures 

Virginia and New Jersey held elections in their state legislatures. In New Jersey, the state House and Senate was up for grabs, while in Virginia only the House of Delegates was up for reelection. 

In New Jersey, 41 women, 27 Democrats and 14 Republicans, won their races, besting the previous record for 36 women elected to the state legislature in 2013.

In the state Senate, 10 women were elected, falling short of the previous record. In the state House, a record 31 women were elected. Additionally, three Asian or Pacific Islander women were elected to the state’s General Assembly. 

In Virginia, 35 women were elected in November to serve in the House of Delegates. Once they are seated in the new year, they will top the previous record of 31. 

Women running for state legislature races are vitally important to growing the pipeline that could send female elected officials to higher office. The lieutenant gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey are evidence of this. All four women who ran for the office in the two states previously served at the state legislative level. 

“Most candidates for higher office, congressional office, statewide offices of any kind come from state legislatures,” Walsh said. “They come up through that pipeline, they become part of the political ecosystem, and they gain a record and a credibility and they also gain expertise.”

Tags Alcee Hastings Boston Durham New Jersey Virginia

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