Why Longer Lives Mean the Future of US Politics Is Female

Congress may see its biggest gains in female influence coming from its older members.

Source Composite: Sean Culligan/OZY. Image: Getty

Why you should care

Because the female rush of 2018 won’t recede anytime soon. 

Women live longer than men. And in the realm of politics, simply sticking around has an advantage, as seniority often dictates power — particularly in Congress and state legislatures. But that hasn’t helped women traditionally. Until now.

For decades, men have more often gotten elected at a younger age, whereas women either struggled to win races or didn’t choose to join politics until after raising children. Take Nancy Pelosi, perhaps the most sustainably powerful female American politician in history, who won her first race in her late 40s. But the equation for a career in American politics is shifting in favor of women like never before, driven by a combination of advances in health and a surge of political activism. 

People are living longer than ever before, with the average lifespan of Americans up from 74 years in 1980 to 79 in 2018. That helps women make up for their late starts into politics — particularly considering that, on average, they live a decade longer than men. That’s reflected in Congress: The 10 oldest women in Congress today average nearly 80 years, compared with just 74 years in 2009. At the other end of the spectrum, women are also running in (and winning) elections at a much younger age. The most recent two “youngest-evers” elected to Congress were women: Republican Elise Stefanik, who was 30 when elected in 2014, and Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was 29 when she won last November. Will shorter runways and longer incumbencies solidify female power in Washington for decades to come? 

We’ll be here forever.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.

This freshman class in Congress could start answering that question. The new legislators have an average age of 47, the youngest since 2011, and include 40 women, helping bring Congress to a record 127 women. Democrats, in particular, have seen younger women thrive: The average of the newly elected Democrats dropped by 7.7 years, from 53.2 last election cycle to 45.5 (meanwhile, Republican candidates were slightly older). It’s not just Ocasio-Cortez: Fellow freshmen Abby Finkenauer of Iowa was also 29 when elected (she turned 30 in December). Illinois’ Lauren Underwood is 32. The Republican side wasn’t quite as successful in a midterm election that favored Democrats. Stefanik was able to recruit more than 100 Republican women to run for Congress, but only Carol Miller, 68, and Debbie Lesko, 59, won office. 

 

Meanwhile, nonprofits and political action committees tasked with recruiting candidates for office are reporting an unabating legion of female hopefuls emerging since the 2016 election. Conservative groups, including the Susan B. Anthony List’s Women Speak Out PAC and the RightNOW Women PAC, have formed to recruit right-leaning women. The left-leaning political action committee Emily’s List had 920 women reaching out with interest in campaigning in the 2016 cycle. Since then, more than 46,000 women have approached the group. 

“Women are really feeling the urgency of the situation, whereas there may have previously been a desire to wait for that perfect time for office,” says Maeve Coyle, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which recruits pro-choice women for office. 

That youthful shift has had marginal effects on both the Democratic and Republican leadership. The top three posts on the Democratic side are held by lawmakers age 78 or older, although Ben Ray Luján, 46, and Hakeem Jeffries, 48, were both added this Congress to fill out the lower rungs of leadership. The top three Republicans are all in their 50s, with 52-year-old Liz Cheney the newest addition to the House leadership team after being elected Republican Conference chairman in November. 

But that isn’t deterring young women from entering politics, says Amanda Litman, the 29-year-old co-founder of Run for Something, which focuses on candidates for offices below the federal level, from state legislatures to city councils. “We have seen many, many women who have become the youngest woman serving in their office, the first working parent,” says Litman. 

The climb up Capitol Hill remains far steeper for women than for men. Women still only make up 27 percent of Congress, and those young women who get into office will have to first overcome challenges from institutions not quite ready for their arrival. Some state capitols such as those in Virginia and Nebraska don’t have nursing rooms for new mothers. Others, including Minnesota and Massachusetts, suffer from a lack of affordable childcare options, leaving new lawmaker parents few options for their kids during the legislative calendar. That’s despite the fact that most state legislatures are part-time jobs with small salaries (in New Hampshire, the pay is $400 for the year … plus a free highway toll pass). 

Deb Fischer, a Republican U.S. senator, remembers being asked to run for office while raising her three boys out in the Nebraska Sandhills — a stretch of sand-and-prairie dunes 300 miles from the state capitol in Lincoln. “That’s not going to work for women like me, who live in rural areas or work in businesses like agriculture … and nothing has changed in regards to that,” says the 68-year-old rancher, who entered politics with a state Senate win in 2004, after her children were grown.

Changing perceptions around traditional child-rearing roles could free more women to make the long commutes necessary to lead. States like Alaska and Nevada have pioneered remote committee hearings — where constituents from far-flung locales report to lawmakers over teleconference. It’s not hard to envision a model where legislators could consider those reports and then vote remotely too, although no state has implemented such a system yet. Such steps, done securely, could make it easier for legislators, male or female, with families to participate in democracy. “The structures of these institutions determine who can participate,” Litman says. For instance, how could a teacher take three months off during the school year to live in a hotel and work in a state capitol? 

As those issues are addressed, Congress may see its biggest gains in female influence coming from its older members. In a future where people regularly reach centenarian status thanks to anti-aging technology, a whole cohort of young congresswomen in safe districts — such as Ocasio-Cortez — could ride their incumbencies to a career like that of John Dingell, who passed away in February after serving a record 59 years in Congress, from 1955 to 2015.  “I know. We’ll be here forever,” says Fischer, laughing.

Fischer doesn’t believe it’s just the seniority system that will propel women into leadership.  “It’s also due to personalities, and being able to have that force of a personality so that you do become involved and you are a player,” she says. 

That sentiment is reflected in findings published in 2017 by Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Women are inordinately the researchers, the caregivers and the chief consumers of their household. While men surveyed about retirement used words like “relax” and “travel,” the No. 1 word for women was “fulfilled,” Coughlin writes in his book The Longevity Economy. If women start earlier and live longer, that fulfillment may very well come from taking over the highest levers of government.

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