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  • Writer's pictureThe Ascend Fund

2021 Election Analysis: Nominal progress for women


In 2020, all eyes were on the White House and Kamala Harris’ historic election as the first woman and woman of color to serve as vice president. In contrast, 2021 was an “off-year,” meaning there were only a few federal or state races which, typically take place in even numbered years. But despite relatively few federal or state races taking place this year, there were a number of local elections that were important to the broader political landscape for women’s representation.

Overall, women’s representation remains relatively unchanged following the 2021 election, a disappointment given the historic wins for women in both 2018 and 2020. At the local level, the number of women mayors decreased slightly, from 32 to 30. However, in New York the City Council is now majority women. A record 31 women won seats in the 51-person body, up from a previous high of 16. At the state level, white men retained the governor’s offices in New Jersey and Virginia, but both selected women as lieutenant governors. And while both New Jersey and Virginia held elections for seats in the state legislature, the number of women only nominal progress was made in comparison to historic gains for women in recent years. There is also no change in the number of women serving in Congress following two special elections in Ohio.

Women’s Representation in Local Office

Prior to the 2021 election, the number of women who served in local office was similar to the number of women elected at the state and federal level. Women held 30.5% of municipal offices, many of which are non-partisan, in comparison to 31% of state legislative seats and 26% of Congressional seats. Notably women accounted for only 25.1% of mayors in cities with a population above 30,000, but served as mayor in 32 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. Because of the nature of our elections and the vast number of local officials, it will take some time to gather complete data about the number of women who won.

Local leaders make up the vast majority – 96% – of the over 500,000 elected officials in the U.S. But of those races, approximately 40% of local seats go uncontested each year, and in some states, in some years, this number can reach almost 90%.

We know that when women run, women win. Unfortunately, women consistently account for just a small percentage of candidates. Uncontested races create an opportunity for more women to run, charting a path towards gender parity at all levels of elected office. Local office also serves as an important steppingstone to higher office, with many women serving on school boards, city commissions, or county executive before running for the state legislature or Congress.

Our partner She Should Run offers a Public Office Profile Suite to help women identify what office to run for by providing information like duties and responsibilities, required experience, and first-hand accounts from women in office.

Major Mayoral Races

As of March 2021, 32 women were serving as mayor of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. Following the November 2nd election, that number decreases to 30. Of the three women who sought re-election, Jean Stothert, the mayor of Omaha, and LaToya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, won their bids, while Kim Janney of Boston, lost in the primary.

Women did pick up a seat. In Durham, North Carolina, Elaine O’Neal was elected as the city’s mayor, becoming the first Black mayor in Durham’s history.

Five women did not run for reelection. Of those five, two were replaced by other women – Mattie Parker replaced Betsy Price as mayor of Fort Worth, TX and Tishaura Jones replaced Lyda Krusen as mayor of St. Louis, MO – and three were replaced by a man -- Bruce Harnell replaced Mayor Jenny Durkan as Mayor of Seattle, WA, Dave Bronson replaced Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson as mayor of Anchorage, AK, and Andre Dickens replaced Keisha Lance Bottoms as mayor of Atlanta.

Data: Center for American Women and Politics


Atlanta Mayor Keesha Lance Bottoms decided not to seek re-election in 2021. More than a dozen candidates sought to replace her including City Council President Felicia Moore who earned 41% of the vote and came out on top of the primary field, but lost in the run-off election to Councilman Andre Dickens.

Prior to the 2021 election, a record eight Black women served as mayors of the largest 100 cities in the U.S., and the mayor’s office was the only place Black women’s representation was proportional to the population (7.8%). Despite Moore’s win in Atlanta, that number has dropped to seven with Kim Janey’s loss in Boston.


In 2021, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh stepped down after being confirmed U.S. Secretary of Labor. Kim Janey, council president, was appointed as interim mayor, becoming both the first Black mayor and woman mayor in the city’s history. Janey finished fourth in the Primary Election, which featured the most diverse field of candidates in the city’s history.

Annissa Essaibi-George and Michelle Wu, both members of the Boston City Council, came out on top of the nonpartisan race in which the top two vote getters advanced to the General Election. Wu, who is Asian American, defeated Essaibi-George in the General Election 64% to 36%. Wu becomes the both the first woman and woman of color elected to the office in nearly 200 years. Wu is also the first mom to serve in the role, something our partner Vote Mama is working to normalize.

Eight women won seats on the Boston City Council, making women the majority of 13-member body. This includes five women of color, including Ruthzee Louijeune, the first Haitian-American City Councilor, Tania Fernandes Anderson, the first Muslim and Cape-Verdean on the City Council, and Kendra Hicks, the first Black woman to represent her district.

New York City

In New York City, a record-breaking 31 women were elected to the city council, up from just 16 currently serving. It’s important to note that “wins” like this don’t just happen. A concerted effort 21 in 21 was launched to elect 21 additional women to the city council, joining five women incumbents, to achieve gender parity in the 51-member body. Since 2017, the organization cultivated a pipeline of womxn-identifying candidates to run for City Council from all five of the city’s boroughs, as well as identified volunteers, staff, and donors to support the women seeking office.

Many of the women elected to the City Council participated in programming provided by our partners, including:

· APAICS: Julie Won

· New American Leaders: Crystal Hudson, Farah Louis, Linda Lee, Rita Joseph, and Shahana Hanif

· Victory Institute: Tiffany Cabán, Crystal Hudson, Kristin Richardson Jordan, and Lynn Schulman

· Vote Run Lead: Althea Stevens, Amanda Farias, Jennifer Gutierrez, Julie Won, Marjorie Velazquez, Pierina Sanchez, Rita Joseph, Sandy Nurse, and Shahana Hanif

Women’s Representation in State Office

New Jersey

Lt. Governor

In New Jersey, Republican candidate for governor, Jack Ciattarelli selected Diane Allen, a former state senator and longtime advocate for pay equity, as his running mate. Ciattarelli and Allen were narrowly defeated by incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, the only Black woman to have served as speaker of the state assembly. New Jersey is unique in that the state has only two elected executive office holders, all others are appointed by the governor. Notably, a woman has held the lieutenant governor’s position in New Jersey since the role was created in 2010.

State Legislature

Women made modest gains in the New Jersey legislature. Forty-one women (27 Democrats/14 Republicans) won seats in the legislature. This includes Shama Haider, Ellen Park, and Sadaf Jaffer, the first three Asian or Pacific Islander (API) women to be elected to the New Jersey state legislature. Prior to 2021 New Jersey had never elected a woman who identified as API to the legislature, despite the population being above 10% in the state. Our partner, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), is actively working to elect more API women to all offices in the U.S. through their Women’s Collective.

Before the 2021 election, women accounted for 30.8% of members of the New Jersey Legislature and the state ranked 25th nationally. Women held 11 of 40 seats (9 Democrats/2 Republicans) in the State Senate and 26 of 80 seats (19 Democrats/7 Republicans) in the General Assembly.

Ten women won seats in the State Senate (seven Democrats/three Republicans). Eleven women served in the State Senate in 2021, so the number of women serving has decreased.

Thirty-one women won seats in the General Assembly (20 Democrats/11 Republicans), an increase from the 26 currently serving. The New Jersey General Assembly has multi-member districts, so two members are elected in each district.

Republican women are on track to make notable gains in both bodies, with Republican women holding 14 seats in the state legislature, an increase from just nine in 2021.

Data: Center for American Women and Politics

Seventy-three women ran for the state house in 2021, accounting for 42% of all candidates. This is more than in 2019 when 64 women ran for state house accounting for only 36% of candidates. The number of women in elected office tracks closely with the number of women running for office, so to increase the number of women in office, we must increase the number of women running.



Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia. Earlier in the year, McAuliffe defeated two women, Jennifer Carroll Foy, former state delegate, and Jennifer McClellan, state senator, in the Primary Election. Both Carroll Foy and McClellan identify as Black. No Black woman has ever served as a governor of any state in the U.S., something our partner Higher Heights is working to remedy.

While Virginia remains one of the 19 states that has never elected a woman governor, for the first time in Virginia history, a woman of color will hold executive-level office. Youngkin’s running mate, Winsome Sears, formerly served one term in the House of Delegates and identifies as Black. McAuliffe also selected a woman of color, Hala Ayala, a delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates, who is multiracial and identifies as Black, Latina, Middle Eastern/North African, and white, as his running mate.

State Legislature

In Virginia, women made slight gains in the General Assembly. Thirty-five women (24 Democrats/11 Republicans) won seats, an increase from the 31 currently serving. This includes Danica Roem who was re-elected to a third term in the House of Delegates. Roem made history in 2018 as the first transgender person to be elected to a state legislature, thanks in part to support from our partner, Victory Institute. Members of the upper chamber, the Senate, serve four-year terms and were not up for reelection in 2021.

Prior to the election, women accounted for 30% of members of the Virginia General Assembly and the state ranked 28th nationally. Women held 11 of 40 seats (7 Democrats/4 Republicans) in the State Senate and 31 of 100 seats (25 Democrats/6 Republicans) in the House of Delegates.

Data: Center for American Women and Politics

Eighty-three women ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2021, accounting for 35.6% of all candidates. This was an increase over 2019 when only 69 women sought delegate seats and women accounted for 34.0% of candidates. Three Democratic incumbents, Lashrecse Aird, Roslyn Mae Tyler, and Nancy Guy, all Democrats, lost their seats, and at least two Republican challengers Tara Durant and Kim Taylor, beat incumbents.

Women’s Representation in Federal Office

On November 2nd, Florida held a primary election to replace a congressman who died in office and Ohio held two special elections to replace members of Congress who resigned earlier in the year. With the election of Shontel Brown and Mike Carey in Ohio, women’s representation in Congress remains unchanged at 27%. Should Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick win the 20th Congressional District race in Florida in January, that would increase the number of women serving to 121.

Data: Center for American Women and Politics


Florida voters turned out for a special election to replace Congressman Alcee Hastings who died in April. Dale Holness currently leads Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick in the Democratic primary by just 0.1%, 23.8% to 23.7% and the race is headed to a recount. Three women, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Barbara Sharief, and Priscilla Taylor, and eight men sought to secure the Democratic nomination for the 20th Congressional District. Republicans selected Jason Mariner over Greg Musselwhite 58% to 42%. The General Election will take place on January 11, 2022.


In Ohio, a special election was held in the 11th Congressional District to select a replacement for Martha Fudge, who resigned in March to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Biden Administration. Democrat Shontel Brown beat Republican Laverne Gore 79% to 21%. Brown’s election means the majority Black district will continue to be represented by a Black woman.

Also in Ohio, Republican Mike Carey defeated Democrat Allison Russo 58.3% to 41.7% for the 15th district seat. The special election was held to replace Congressman Steve Stivers who resigned in April to serve as the President and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Allison Russo defeated Greg Betts in the August primary, and Mike Carey advanced from a field of 11 candidates including two women, Ruth Edmonds and Stephanie Kunze.

The Pathway to Parity in Action – Our Partners’ Candidates

What Does This Mean for the Path to Parity?

The lack of significant gains for women in the 2021 election illustrates the overall challenge in achieving gender parity, which to date has been painstakingly slow. It’s taken 100 years for women to reach 25% representation, and without significant intervention from organizations like The Ascend Fund and our partners, it could take another century to achieve gender parity.

As we move on from the disappointments of the 2021 election, we think back on the record number of women who were elected in 2018 and again in 2020. We’re working with our 25 partners across the country to ensure women have the training, resources, and support they need to successfully run for office. Read more about our strategy and opportunities for impact.


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