Discuss as:

Women candidates broke many barriers on Election Day 2012

Though President Obama's reelection captured the main headlines of the 2012 election, women candidates etched themselves into political history on Nov. 6 with a string of significant firsts.

Darren Hauck / Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

Women were a key focus of the election, with both President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney recognizing them as a key voting bloc as they addressed such issues as abortion rights and pay equity. Lost in the commotion, however, was the fact that many women were just as much about trying to secure votes for themselves as candidates.

A record number of women ran for political office this year, yielding more women than ever to serve in the U.S. Senate – at least 19 so far. Voting officials continue to tally close races Wednesday morning, but it appears women also will have an impact in the U.S. House, for which 141 women ran as candidates.

“It’s all part of the evolutionary process of this system opening up and new people coming in,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told TODAY.com. “We’re talking about women who are veterans, women who have different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And the professions they’re coming from also have been changing.”

In a night of firsts, several of the milestones reached weren't even tied to gender, Walsh noted.

“They are firsts in a more broad sense,” she said, specifically referring to the first Hindu elected to the U.S. House and the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. 

Here are some of the highlights of the 2012 election for female candidates:

Marco Garcia / AP

U.S. Rep. Maize Hirono.

Paul Beaty / AP

U.S. Representative-elect Tammy Duckworth.

  • New Hampshire became the first state to be led by an all-female delegation with its election of two women to the U.S. House. Democrats Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter defeated incumbents to fill the state’s congressional seats, joining two women who already represent the Granite State: U.S. Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen. Another New Hampshire woman, Democrat Maggie Hassan, also sent her male opponent packing to become the state’s next governor. She was the only woman in the country to run for governor this year.
  • Hawaii celebrated a pair of woman firsts: Tulsi Gabbard become the first Hindu elected to Congress, while U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono became the first woman her state will send to the U.S. Senate. Hirono, a Japanese immigrant, also become that chamber’s first Asian-American woman member.
  • Another female Asian-American Pacific Islander, this one in Illinois, celebrated a first of her own. Army veteran Tammy Duckworth, who is part Thai, became the first disabled woman elected to the U.S. House. The former Assistant Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs lost both of her legs from injuries sustained while serving in combat in Iraq.
  • In Wisconsin, sexual orientation never became an issue in the race for Senate between Rep. Tammy Baldwin and former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Yet, Baldwin’s win, making her the first openly gay woman elected to the Senate, was widely noted in campaign coverage.
  • In Arizona, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual member of Congress. The former state senator will represent a new congressional district that includes parts of Phoenix and several affluent suburbs.
  • And Elizabeth Warren, who became the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, said her victory was about fighting for all of her constituents, not just half of them. “This is a win for America’s middle class," she told Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday. “This is a win for every family that really has been hammered and chipped and squeezed for a generation now.”

In one of the most hotly contested Congressional races, Democrat Elizabeth Warren won the Massachusetts Senate seat held by Republican senator Scott Brown, becoming the first woman to be elected to the Senate from that state. The senator-elect speaks with TODAY's Matt Lauer about her victory.

But for all the firsts women achieved in the 2012 election, Walsh said there is much more to be done.

“The real accomplishment will be when we have the second and the third, and that’s when you begin to feel that there has been real change,” she said. “I think these are enormously important wins, but the challenge will be that, when these things happen, they are not the first and the last time they happen, that there are more women following them. And I think there will be.”

 

More:

Elizabeth Warren on deficit: 'There's room for compromise'

Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin becomes first openly gay senator

'War on women' may have helped Democrats; Senate has record number of women

Breaking barriers: U.S. women leaders