One takeaway from the race between Mikie Sherrill and Rosemary Becchi in New Jersey’s the 11th district in 2020: since women won the right to vote in 1920, this is just the 5th time both major parties have nominated a woman to run against each other for the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the 650 congressional races in New Jersey since women won the right to vote 100 years ago, two major party women running for Congress happened just four times before Sherrill vs. Becchi.
In 2014, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) and Republican Alitia Eck faced off in NJ-12. It was the only time in New Jersey where both parties nominated a woman to run for an open seat where no incumbent was seeking re-election.
Rep. Marge Roukema (D-Ridgewood), who was the only women representing New Jersey for 20 of her 22 years in Congress, faced a Democratic woman opponent twice: she defeated Rose Brunetto, who had been involved in Demcoratic campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, in 1984 with 71%; and won 65% against attorney Linda Mercurio in 2000.
This first House race between two women came in 1962, when three-term Rep. Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth) faced a challenge from Lillian Egolf, the deputy Union County Register of Deeds and Mortgages. Egolf was the widow of former Rahway Mayor James Egolf. Dwyer won 60%-40%.
New Jersey has only elected seven women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and none to the United States Senate.
The other three New Jersey congresswomen faced only male opponents: Mary T. Norton (D-Jersey City), who won a Hudson County House seat in 1925 and held it for sixteen years; Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville); and Helen Meyner (D-Phillipsburg).
In a debate on Sunday night, Sherrill and Becchi agreed on at least one thing: both said the nation would be better off if women outnumbered men in the House and in teh Senate.
The possibility existed that New Jersey might increase the representation of women in their congressional delegation this year from two to three, if Democrat Amy Kennedy unseats Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) this year. A recent Monmouth University poll has Kennedy running five points ahead of Van Drew. But that didn’t happen.
The current New Jersey delegation is 86% male.
In total since 1920, New Jersey has elected 111 men and 7 women to Congress (94%-6%).
The first woman to win a House seat from New Jersey was Norton, an ally of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague. She was elected in 1924, the fifth woman to ever serve in Congress. Norton was an ally of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague; she was the first Democratic State Committeewoman from Hudson County (elected in 1920), the first woman Freeholder in New Jersey (elected 1922), and the first woman to serve as New Jersey Democratic State Chair (elected 1933). She chaired four full House committees during her 26 years in Congress – the longest-serving Congresswoman in New Jersey history.
After Norton retired – President Truman hired her as a “Womanpower Consultant” for the U.S. Labor Department’s Defense Manpower task force – New Jersey didn’t have a woman in the delegation until Dwyer, a Republican Assemblywoman from Elizabeth, defeated Rep. Harrison Williams in 1956. Dwyer served sixteen years in Congress before retiring in 1972.
Two women were elected to Congress in 1974, back when New Jersey had fifteen districts: Meyner, a former First Lady of New Jersey (her husband was two-term Gov. Robert Meyner) who beat Rep. Joe Maraziti; and Fenwick, a former assemblywoman and state consumer affairs director who won Peter Frelinghuysen’s open seat. Meyner lost her bid for a third term in 1978 and Fenwick left to run for U.S. Senator in 1982. Roukema ousted Rep. Andy Maguire in 1980.
Democrats nominated a woman for U.S. Senate in 1932, although it was in a special election to fill the remaining ten weeks of an unexpired term. The party nominated a man for the six-year term. New Jersey has never had a woman U.S. Senator, although the Republicans nominated women in 1982, 1984 and 1990. Republicans elected the first woman governor in 1993; Democrats nominated a woman to run for governor in 2013.
New Jersey elected the first two women to the State Assembly in 1921 – about fifteen months after the 19th Amendment was ratified. It took 44 more years to elect a woman to the State Senate. The first woman Assembly Speaker was elected in 1965 – and not again until Sheila Oliver won the post in 2011. It took until 1957 for a black woman to win an Assembly seat, and it wasn’t until 1971 that a black woman was elected to the State Senate. Watson Coleman was the first black woman to be elected to Congress.