The Women of 2018: The Pink Wave in the US House Elections… and Its Legacy in 2020, Barbara Burrell

Reviewed by Emily Baer


The story of the 2018 midterm election is often told in pithy, but usually trite, media headlines (e.g., the second “Year of the Woman”). Such headlines belie the fact that important questions about the significance of the election's historic number of women candidates remain largely unanswered. The Women of 2018: The Pink Wave in the US House Elections… and Its Legacy in 2020 describes this historic midterm election and its implications for research on women and politics.

Barbara Burrell's analysis contributes to an emerging and often paradoxical portrait of women's representation. Research on gender stereotypes, candidate communication, and even fundraising increasingly identifies a lack of gender differences between men and women candidates. Yet, women remain stubbornly underrepresented in elected office. Relying primarily on publicly available qualitative data, including media coverage and campaign websites, Burrell examines whether these findings hold true in 2018. The analysis identifies the cohort of women congressional candidates in 2018, their motivations for running, their campaign messages, as well as their eventual transition to serving in Congress. Among the notable candidates Burrell follows are the “avengers” who ran as a response to the #MeToo movement, the “persisters” who were motivated by the symbolic silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and the national security–focused “badasses.”

Often obscured in Burrell's emphasis on analyzing women's campaigns through their public comments and messages is how the broader political environment of 2018 (and in one later chapter, 2020) affected their campaign decisions. This tension is especially apparent in the analysis of campaign messages. Burrell identifies women candidates' emphasis on health care access, #MeToo and issues of sexual harassment and assault, and their roles as mothers as a challenge to the “gender vulnerability” thesis and a shift in their ability to run “as women.” Of course, these messages may also be a cogent response by strategic candidates to the salience of certain issues, as well as the need for Democrats to appeal to women voters in order to win back control of the House. Will women candidates still run on these issues and messages in alternative electoral contexts when the economy or national security are especially salient? And if they do, will they still win?

Burrell is understandably hesitant to draw conclusions about the broader significance of 2018 for future parity in representation—an implicit motivation of any book that focuses on a single election such as this. But the careful attention to women candidates' diverse range of attitudes and backgrounds, including partisanship, race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, and age, throughout the text enables two central conclusions to emerge.

First, in 2018 and 2020, women were smart, strategic candidates who worked together and learned from one another. Burrell's account of the Democratic “badasses” who pooled fundraising resources across state lines in 2018, as well as Republican women, led by Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who observed Democratic women's early fundraising strategies and sought to emulate them in 2020, is especially interesting.

And second, even when quality women candidates run—in historic numbers, managing strategic campaigns—they still confront numerous institutional challenges, including winner-take-all, single-member districts, and existing fundraising structures that benefit white women candidates.

Burrell's analysis suggests a need for future research about the collaborative strategies that women adopt to overcome real—and perceived—challenges to electoral parity, the longevity of the grassroots and electoral mobilization spurred by the Women's March and the “Trump effect,” and the potential of ranked-choice voting reforms. Alongside 2018 and 2022, the 2022 midterms will provide another case to explore them.

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