IN 1776 ABIGAIL ADAMS urged her husband John to “remember the ladies”, warning him that women “are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” The future president responded that for men to relinquish their political primacy would be to “subject us to the despotism of the petticoat”. Such ideas prevailed even into the early 1900s, when opponents of women’s suffrage argued that their votes would be redundant, merely duplicating those of their husbands. Yet suffragettes chipped away at public opinion, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was certified 100 years ago this week.
Women now regularly turn out to vote in larger numbers than men do. Yet they are still vastly under-represented in government. Just 24% of voting members in Congress are female. That number is both a cause célèbre and a national embarrassment. It is a milestone because the current 127 women in Congress mark the highest number ever (see chart 1). It falls short not only because nearly 51% of America’s population are women, but also because in other large, rich countries women make up bigger shares of legislatures’ lower houses (see chart 2). Female representation is also lopsided: 83% of women in the Senate and the House of Representatives are Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House (and the first woman in that post) noted that fact during her speech at the Democratic National Convention last week.
The Democrats’ superior record in electing women is not new. In 1992, dubbed the “Year of the Woman” by political commentators, four new female senators and 24 new congresswomen were elected. All but three representatives in that new cohort were Democrats. A more accurate label, suggest Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder in their new book, “A Century of Votes for Women”, would have been the “Year of the Democratic Woman”.
This year record numbers of women in both major parties have filed to run for Congress. But few new Republican female candidates are likely to win Senate seats, and several incumbent ones may lose theirs. Of the nine Republican women in the Senate, six will defend their seats in November. Polling from FiveThirtyEight, a website, suggests that four of them—Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine, Martha McSally in Arizona and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia—could lose. By contrast, neither Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire nor Tina Smith in Minnesota, the two female Democratic incumbents who are up for re-election, appear likely to be defeated. In the House, Republican women will be struggling just to make up the ground they lost in the mid-term elections in 2018 when their number fell from 23 to 13. That is the lowest number since the mid-1990s. All told, the Republican contingent in Congress could become even more male.
In an “autopsy” report published after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the presidential election of 2012, the Republican National Committee fretted that its maleness (and whiteness) might continue to cost it votes. “The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten,” it warned. The report called for the RNC to court minority and female voters and to promote women within the committee; to empower and train female candidates; and to recognise the obstacles that women can face while campaigning.
But Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and his subsequent capture of the Republican Party was in part thanks to his appeal among the party’s base: rural, white men and evangelicals. His electoral success put the RNC’s ideas for building a broad Republican coalition on hold. Now that the president is badly trailing Joe Biden in the polls, however, the question of what a post-Trump Republican Party should look like may be re-opened.
Jennifer Lim and Meghan Milloy, who run Republican Women for Progress (RWFP), a campaign group, are pessimistic about both the party’s chances of shrinking its congressional gender gap and its future if it cannot do so. No fans of Mr Trump, they point to his presidency and the party’s failure to diversify as twin threats to its existence. “Either the Republican Party will go extinct or it’ll just become a truly evil force,” says Ms Lim. “A very small evil force,” adds Ms Milloy. To save itself, they argue, the party needs to embrace big-tent Republicanism.
In the meantime, Ms Lim and Ms Milloy have taken a page out of the Democrats’ book. Inspired by Emily’s List, an organisation that helps fund and elect pro-choice Democratic women, RWFP aims to help elect moderate Republican women. But building a pipeline of candidates can’t be done overnight. Emily’s List has deep pockets, national recognition and 35 years of recruiting and advocacy to draw on. RWFP was founded only after the 2016 election and doesn’t enjoy the same support for its mission from the wider Republican Party that Emily’s List does from the Democrats.
Some universities and political groups offer non-partisan campaign training to women thinking about running for office or becoming campaign managers. The Campaign School (TCS) at Yale University opened its doors in 1994 to capitalise on the enthusiasm generated during the “Year of the Woman”. Its alumnae include Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator for New York, and Gabby Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman and gun-control activist from Arizona.
Patricia Russo, the school’s executive director, says Democrats still outnumber Republicans in its programmes—but by less than they used to. Students’ political affiliation is not the only thing that has shifted. In 1994, Ms Russo says, most women at TCS were white and in their mid-40s. In 2019 the median age was around 29, and the majority of students were women of colour. Are such pipeline-building efforts effective? Of the 80 students in TCS’s class of 2018, 42 ended up running for office at the local and state level—and 40 were victorious.
If the Republican congressional contingent were to become even more male, there is no sure way to know how that might affect the party’s appeal to voters. History suggests that women are no more likely than men to vote for women, argues Ms Wolbrecht, a political scientist at Notre Dame University. Women have, however, been more likely than men to vote Democratic in every presidential election since 1980. And at a time when partisanship and tribalism are at fever pitch, Ms Wolbrecht writes, the ways the parties present themselves to the public can reveal which groups are most “welcome and central” in that party.
The principal speakers at the Democrats’ and Republicans’ nominating conventions are a good guide to the image the parties want to project to voters. The Democrats’ convention was a picture of big-tent politics, featuring many influential women, people of colour, progressives and even Republicans. The Republicans’ event this week will also feature many women—though most of them are white, and several are related to the president. “I’m concerned that it’s going to be another display of exclusion,” says Ms Milloy. “I hope I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong.”
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