Even with many high-profile female candidates, the just-ended campaign was rife with sexism ranging from snarky fashion critiques to sexual innuendo. And when all the ballots are counted, women may hold fewer seats in the new Congress than the outgoing one.
"It looks as if we're going backward rather than forward," Siobhan Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Forum Foundation, said at a teleconference Thursday discussing the prevalence of political sexism.
Two years after Hillary Rodham Clinton nearly captured the Democratic presidential nomination and Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, female candidates dealt with comments about their hair and seamy, anonymous Web postings. Speaker Nancy Pelosi — second in the presidential line of succession — was widely vilified by Republican candidates in ways that often seemed gender-specific.
Bennett said the prospect of sexist attacks deterred many women from running for office and was a reason why scores of other countries have a higher proportion of women in their national legislatures than the U.S., which remains at 17 percent.
Depending on the outcome of a few undecided races, women will at best hold even in the Senate with 17 seats, and could lose one or two of their 73 seats in the House. That would be the first such decline since 1978.
"Going backward is unacceptable," said Erin Vilardi of the White House Project, a nonpartisan group dedicated to recruiting women to run for office.
She said there was a growing pipeline of potential female candidates eager to run at the local level, and she faulted both major parties for inadequate efforts to identify and support them.
Earlier in the campaign, there was widespread buzz that this would be "The Year of the Woman" — notably on the Republican side with the Senate candidacies of Carly Fiorina in California, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire.
Of the four, only Ayotte won. She will become the lone woman in the Senate opposed to broad-based abortion rights.
On the House side, the GOP fared better, adding at least eight new female members. But those gains were offset by defeats of at least nine incumbent Democratic women.
The number of female governors will remain at six, including three new Republicans: Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.
The outcome spells the end of Pelosi's four-year stint as the first female speaker of the House —the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. history.
Women's groups monitoring campaign sexism felt that some of the GOP attacks on Pelosi were misogynistic and were irked that conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh played "Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead" on his radio show Wednesday to celebrate Pelosi's impending demotion.
Three groups supporting an expanded political role for women teamed up in recent months with an initiative called "Name It, Change It," — intended to swiftly protest instances of perceived political sexism that surfaced during the campaign.
On Thursday, the New York-based Women's Media Center and its partners announced "awards" for what they considered the most flagrant examples in the media.
Among those cited were the gossip blog Gawker, for running a tawdry anonymous posting from a man claiming a brief romantic encounter with Christine O'Donnell several years ago, and the Boston Herald, for a column in which a minor party candidate's hair was likened to a Brillo pad.
Joining the teleconference was Krystal Ball, the losing Democratic candidate in a race for a U.S. House seat in Virginia. In mid-campaign, she had to deal with the fallout of an Internet-posted photo showing her in a suggestive outfit and pose at a costume party six years ago.
Ball sought advice from "Name It, Change It" on how to respond, and forcefully defended herself against what she said was a smear campaign. Though she lost, she said her decision to denounce the tactic as sexist helped her gain votes.
"There's no question in my mind that calling this out was the right thing to do," she said, expressing hope that other women wouldn't be deterred from running for office out of fear of being embarrassed by comparable tactics.
The issue of sexism has cropped up regularly in recent elections. In 2008, for example, both Clinton and Palin were critiqued for dress and demeanor in ways that seemed belittling to women.
"When you attack one woman in this way, you attack all women in this way," said Bennett, who depicted political sexism as a bipartisan problem.
She said seemingly mild sexism — commentary on clothes, makeup and cleavage — can be as damaging to a female candidate's credibility as sharper attacks.
"Women can fight back," she said. "As soon as a woman says, 'That's sexist, that's off-base,' voters go, 'That's right.'"
For many politically engaged women, possible bipartisan solidarity against sexism is overshadowed by the bitter divide over abortion. On both sides of that debate, prominent women have been busy since the election tallying the huge increase — several dozen seats — in the number of abortion opponents in the House.
Bennett said women should not let the abortion divide impede the broader goal of getting more women — liberal or conservative — into Congress.
"You elect any woman, of either party, and you have a harder-working woman ... a leader who will be paying more attention to education, to quality of life," she said. "Having more women in elective office is essential to the long-term health of our nation."