The 116th Congress has more women and people of color than ever – but there’s still room to improve

Women and people of color made substantial gains in the 2018 midterm elections toward diversifying the House and the Senate.

For the past three and a half decades, my co-author, G. William Domhoff, and I have been monitoring diversity in what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” – those in the most influential positions in the corporate, political and military spheres.

We’ve found that, since the 1950s, corporations, political bodies and the military have diversified, but at a glacial pace and in different ways. Women, for example, made it into the corporate and political elites well before they were allowed to join the military elite.

The elections for the 116th Congress led to meaningful increases in diversity, especially among women, Latinos and African-Americans. The media have made a great deal of the gains in diversity – for example, this election saw the first two Native American women elected to Congress, as well as the first two Muslim women.

Let’s put these examples into the context of historical changes in diversity in Congress.

Women in Congress

In 1956, the year Mills’s classic book, “The Power Elite,” was published, there were 17 women in the House. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, was the only woman in the Senate.

By the year 2000, the number in the House had increased, slowly but surely, to 58, and the number in the Senate was up to nine.

The single biggest jump came as a result of the 1992 election, when the 102nd Congress went from 6.7 to 10.8 percent women in the House, and from 2 to 7 percent in the Senate. That’s why 1992 is often referred to as “the Year of the Woman.”

Since the year 2000, the number of women in the House and the Senate has increased steadily. This year’s election for the 116th Congress continued the trend. It provided the second-biggest bounce ever in the House, from 89 to at least 98. (As I write this, 10 races are still too close to call.) That’s a jump from 20.5 to 23.0 percent – not quite as big a jump as in 1992, but close.