Will 2018 be “The Year of the Woman” in PA?

There has been significant coverage that the 2018 primaries have drawn an historic number of women candidates, with 2018 being dubbed “The Year of the Woman”. As much of this coverage notes, there are no women among Pennsylvania’s 18 members of the House of Representatives or two Senators. This year, there are 21 women on the ballot for the U.S. House races in tomorrow’s Pennsylvania primary, representing 23.6 percent of total candidates.

Pennsylvania consistently ranks as one of the worst states for electing women. In addition to the current lack of women in Congress, Pennsylvania has never elected a woman Senator, Governor, or Lieutenant Governor. Pennsylvania currently ranks 38th for the percentage of women in state legislatures. 19 percent of Pennsylvania state legislators are women, compared to 25.4 percent of state legislators nationwide.

Reading through the news coverage of this year’s historic number of women candidates, I wanted to better understand the relationship between the percentage of women running in primaries and the percentage of women being elected. In addition, how does Pennsylvania stack up against the country as a whole?

Only seven women have been elected to Congress from Pennsylvania and only four of those women were elected for more than one term:

Most areas of the state have never been represented in Congress by a woman:

Nationally, the percentage of women in Congress has grown significantly – particularly over the past 30 years – but the percentage of women from Pennsylvania has stagnated.

Since 1916, only 5.7 percent of seats in Congress were held by women – 6.0 percent of seats in the House of Representatives and 4.7 percent of seats in the Senate. Respectively, in Pennsylvania the percentage is only 1.2 percent of seats in Congress, 1.3 percent in the House of Representatives and 0.0 percent of Senate seats.

As noted, I wanted to understand the root of the gap between the percentage of women elected in Pennsylvania and the percentage of women elected nationally. To do this, I calculated the percentages of women in the House of Representatives from PA and nationwide for:

  1. Candidates in primary elections
  2. Candidates in general elections
  3. Elected Members of the House of Representatives


The percentages were calculated from all candidates who filed to run as major party candidate in a primary election, represented a major party in a general election, or were elected to the House of Representatives. I chose to analyze the House of Representatives only due to the higher frequency and number of elections, and because no woman has been elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania.

What I found is that the gap between Pennsylvania and the national average is rooted in election outcomes, not the percentage of women who run for office. Nationwide, the percentage of women primary candidates is slightly higher (14.3 vs. 12.4 percent), and at both levels women are slightly more likely than their male counterparts to win primary elections (accounting for 16.0 vs. 13.1 percent of general election candidates).



The major difference between representation of women in the full House of Representatives and within the Pennsylvania delegation is due to the outcomes of general elections. Between 2002 and 2016, women won 17.4 percent of House seats nationally, while women in Pennsylvania only won 5.0 percent of the time.

This year, Pennsylvania eclipsed the national average of women competing in the primary election. As noted, women account for 23.6 percent of candidates in tomorrow’s primary, and 25 percent of individuals who filed to run were women, compared to 18.3 percent of candidates nationally.



Candidates this year benefit from the low number of incumbents – with only 10/18 House Members running for reelection, compared to an average of 16.8/18.6 between 2002 and 2016. Even in the absence of predictions of political shifts in this year’s midterm elections, this is an opportunity for women to gain seats, against the momentum of incumbency. Between 2002 and 2016, 94 percent of incumbents were reelected. What remains to be seen is whether this will translate to a greater representation of women in the Pennsylvania delegation to the House of Representatives. Stay tuned.


Alison Shott, Ph.D. is an Associate Director at ESI. Alison’s dissertation examined the role of municipal associations in inter-municipal cooperation and collective intergovernmental lobbying. She continues to actively publish in these areas. Her research on how election structures impact the rate of uncontested city council seats in Canadian municipalities was published in The Democracy Cookbook: Improving Democratic Governance in Newfoundland and Labrador, in March 2017.

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