A setback for women in Congress

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan is the only Republican woman in the House to chair a committee.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan is the only Republican woman in the House to chair a committee.

The Congressional midterm election results weren’t just a catastrophe for Democrats. They were a setback for women as well.

True, new women were elected on Tuesday, including new Republican senators and representatives. It’s true as well that the aggregate number of female officeholders in Congress inched upward across the milestone figure of 100.

However, the key authority positions women held in the 113th Congress are about to be taken over by the male-dominated GOP. The elusive goal of a Congress whose leadership even remotely resembles the numbers of women in society is about to take a serious stride backward.

Women’s power in Congress is so deeply concentrated in the Democratic Party that the shift to a GOP-controlled Senate means women will lose clout. It’s a simple matter of numbers.

Before the midterms, there were 20 women serving in the Senate, 16 Democrats and four Republicans. In the 114th Congress, there will be two more GOP women.

In the House of Representatives, there were 79 women, 60 Democrats and only 19 Republicans. With three races still undecided, there will be at least 11 new women in the House, 7 Democrats and four Republicans (who will join 70 re-elected incumbents).

Of the 10 new Republican senators elected this week, two were women. That may seem like progress, and it is — for Republicans. But by any broad measure it’s pathetic. A Republican woman running for Congress remains a statistical rarity compared to a Democratic female candidate, by a factor of two to one.

“They simply weren’t on the ballot,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

There were some victories Tuesday for up-and-coming women in the GOP, notably Elise Stefanik of New York, who at 30 is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and Mia Love of Utah. Love is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, the first black female Republican to be elected to Congress.

In case anyone needs the reminder, women are half the population. Yet women are only about 20 percent of Congress, and in the GOP-controlled House, only one chairmanship is held by a woman — Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, chair of the House Committee on Administration — according to a tally by the Center for American Women and Politics.

Compare that to the power women wield in the Democratic-controlled Senate in the 113th Congress: They chaired committees on appropriations; environment and public works; ethics; budget; small business and entrepreneurship; intelligence; agriculture, nutrition and forestry; and energy and natural resources.

At least until January these Democratic women will lead. The incoming Senate majority leader might very well want to give some plum spots to the women of his caucus. But he’s got a slim bench to pick from. And the relatively few GOP women in Congress are less senior. Many haven’t paid their dues to earn high profile chairmanships.

Two exceptions are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. OK, that’s two.

Partisan politics in the U.S. is cyclical. There will always be swings in power from one party to the other, especially between presidential elections and midterm elections. If we want continual representation of women in politics, and a meaningful share of power for them, we need more women candidates in the Republican Party — many more.

This isn’t a new problem. It was also noted in 2010, another midterm year in which the GOP racked up considerable gains.

Political observers point to the lack of an Emily’s List for the GOP, or some other strong structure outside of the RNC that can act to recruit female candidates, raise money for them and build their stature in political circles.

Walsh points out that it’s not as if Republicans don’t elect women. They do, often more successfully than Democrats in gubernatorial races.

Moderate Republican women did attempt to campaign in higher numbers this year. But many didn’t make it through the conservative gauntlet that the GOP primaries have become.

That can change — but the GOP will have to want it to change.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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