(WOMENSENEWS)--The number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives will reach a high of 74 when the victors of Tuesday's elections take office in January.
While marking a gain of three legislators, the results failed to push women's stake into the 20 percent territory considered minimal for exerting significant voting-bloc pressure.
"I think it shows us that victories are incremental," said Claire Giesen, executive director of the Washington-based National Women's Political Caucus. "Most of the time it's two steps forward and one back. We just have to keep at it."
"It's great that we are gaining momentum, because that's important," said Marie Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project, the New York group that promotes more women in office. "But it just really speaks to the fact that we have to do a great deal more if we're going to reach parity in government."
Wilson and others think 33 percent is a better figure to work toward. She says women can take more control when they have one-third of power, as they do in Norway, which has more than 33 percent of women in its legislature.
The elections were nonetheless cheered by groups such as the National Women's Political Caucus and Washington-based political action committee EMILY's List, who expect Congress to provide much stronger support for a woman's right to choose.
One major symbol of that was the victory by Democrat Betsy Markey over Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado.
"It's a positive sign for us when we replace women with women who stand for our issues," Giesen said.
Social Issues Flavored Colorado Race
Markey edged out Musgrave by 10 percentage points in a race that featured a wave of negative campaign ads highlighting their contrasting positions on social issues including abortion.
The race drew more than $3 million in independent spending from interest groups, according to a report in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.
Musgrave's re-election bid was viewed as a bellwether of the declining influence of social conservatives both in Congress and in Colorado, where the once solidly Republican electorate has shifted to the Democrats.
Musgrave made abortion rights a key issue for her term in Congress and introduced a federal bill to require parental notification for minors seeking abortion.
Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York, said that a higher number of pro-choice politicians "represents a major step toward getting our country back on track and ensuring that our lawmakers have the right priorities, like support for women's health care."
Two factors in particular--a high number of female political veterans and a strong Democratic headwind--helped women in the election. Of the 133 female major party nominees, 96, or 72 percent, were Democrats.
"Women in Congress are disproportionately Democrats, so big Democratic years tend to be good for women candidates," says Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.
Ten More Women in the House
Five women won open House races, where there were no incumbents. And five female challengers unseated incumbents.
Those 10 join 64 female incumbents who were re-elected.
Some of the challengers prevailed over other women--such as Markey v. Musgrave in Colorado--which combined with some women's losses and others' retirements to keep the female percentage of the House stagnant at 16 percent.
Darcy Burner, a challenger in Washington state, is the only race left that is "too close to call" by the Center for American Women and Politics, which tracks women in political office.
Both Burner and Republican incumbent Dave Reichert had 50 percent of the vote with 41 percent of precincts reporting by Wednesday afternoon. Burner worked for Microsoft before running for Congress in 2006, when she lost narrowly to Reichert in a recount.
"She never stopped running," Giesen said. "She brought youth and freshness to the race. I'm really surprised that she didn't run away with a victory."
Democrat Marcia Fudge of Ohio won her race easily against Republican Thomas Pekarek. Fudge filled the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who died Aug. 19 at age 58. Tubbs Jones, a prominent African American House member, was Fudge's mentor.
Democrat Chellie Pingree of Maine secured 56 percent of the vote in her race against Republican challenger Charles Summers.
But Democrat Kay Barnes in Missouri failed to unseat incumbent Rep. Sam Graves, who received 59 percent of the vote. Barnes' support dwindled last month and she was unable to close the gap.
And in Ohio, the race between Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy and Republican Steve Stivers remains unsettled. Wednesday morning, CNN projected that Kilroy had lost but retracted the projection in the afternoon.
Losses for Women as Well
Giesen said she was stunned at the losses of three Democrats: Linda Stender in New Jersey, Judy Baker in Missouri and Christine Jennings in Florida.
Stender, a Democrat, ran for an open seat in New Jersey against Republican Leonard Lance and lost by 10 percentage points, a big gap for those who expected her to win easily.
In Missouri, Baker lost by three percentage points to Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer.
In Florida, Jennings' also was a large loss. She won 38 percent of the vote against opponent Republican incumbent Vernon Buchanan, who received 55 percent of the vote.
Three Democratic candidates finished strongly for House seats. In Florida, Suzanne Kosmas was projected to win by 16 percentage points against Republican incumbent Tom Feeney. In Maine, Chellie Pingree won by 10 percentage points against Republican Charles Summers. And in Arizona, Ann Kirkpatrick won by 16 percentage points against Republican Sydney Hay.
Giesen hoped a Democratic tide would produce upset victories for two Democrats in Ohio: Victoria Wulsin and Sharen Neuhardt. Both women lost, but four other women picked up wins in the state, including Fudge and three incumbents: Republican Jean Schmidt, Democrat Marcy Kaptur and Democrat Betty Sutton.
Two Democrats considered potential upsets were Linda Ketner in South Carolina and Annette Taddeo in Florida. Both lost to incumbents.
Ketner, who challenged Republican Henry Brown, would have been the first openly gay South Carolinian to take office. Taddeo challenged Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has been in office for nearly 20 years.
The White Houses Project's Wilson said she kept her eye on two Western races: Republican Cynthia Lummis in Wyoming, who won by 10 percentage points; and Democrat Jill Derby in Nevada, who lost by 11 percentage points.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women's eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.