An incredibly diverse group of women will show up for work in Congress next year. Native American women, Muslim women, African-American women, mothers and child-free women, young and old women all won elections this week.
But in one regard these women will be remarkably homogeneous: They’re mostly Democrats.
There are still a few contests that haven’t been decided, but as of this writing, a record 123 women will be heading to Congress for the next term. Only 19 of them are Republicans ― down from 23.
In other words, while the Democratic Party in Congress edges closer to something like gender parity ― nearly 40 percent of the House Democratic caucus will be female ― the GOP is bleeding female politicians.
Certainly, it is the year of the woman, but with an asterisk.
Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia
Republicans have shown diminishing interest in putting up women in elections. During the 2018 cycle, female Republican candidates had a hard time getting funding, Jennifer Pierotti Lim, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, told HuffPost recently.
“The RNC has long purported to support getting more women into office, but they don’t do anything,” said Lim, who added that a lot of the GOP women running in primaries this year couldn’t get enough funding from the party. “So nobody takes them seriously.”
What this means going forward is that women’s electoral successes are linked to the vagaries of the political environment, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
“Certainly, it is the year of the woman, but with an asterisk,” she said.
It’s not surprising, of course, that the party of a president notorious for misogyny and accused of sexual misconduct is edging ever closer toward pure patriarchy. But it’s important to clarify that the Republican Party’s affinity for electing men ― and its male perspective ― is a problem for everyone.
The GOP’s aversion to women is holding back what looks like real movement toward gender equality in Congress, i.e., a truly representative body that looks like the rest of the U.S., where slightly more than half the population is female.
“We’re not gonna get to 50 percent women if only one party gets to 50 percent women,” said Deborah Walsh, the director of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. “Work has to get done on the Republican side to get to the point where we see parity.”
Female candidates win at the same rates as their male peers, Walsh said. This holds for both parties. On Tuesday, for example, Tennessee elected its first female senator, Republican Marsha Blackburn, a Trump-supporting conservative woman.
The effects of this lopsided gender configuration extend beyond the demographics of the legislature. If women are mostly confined to one party, then stereotypes about women are going to be harder to dislodge and the concerns of the women of this country will increasingly be viewed through a partisan lens.
The Me Too movement started out largely apolitical when confined to Hollywood moguls ― but then turned rabidly partisan when politicians started getting accused of misconduct.
And the way the two parties handled accusations had a lot to do with their gender composition.
Democrats in the Senate, largely led by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), ousted their colleague Al Franken over sexual misconduct. Gillibrand received pushback, to be sure, but her colleagues ultimately followed her lead.
Republicans in Congress, dominated by men, haven’t been as willing to clean house. Indeed, they overwhelmingly rushed to defend and push through the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, even as he was facing credible accusations of misconduct.
Notably, the only Republican to defect on Kavanaugh was one of the party’s few female senators. Would a Republican Party with more female politicians have behaved similarly?
If women are mostly confined to one party, then stereotypes about women are going to be harder to dislodge and the concerns of the women of this country will increasingly be viewed through a partisan lens.
There’s a perception that women are a minority voting bloc with a common interest. But as a group, they’re actually just like men: Some lean conservative, some don’t. That’s a lesson that should have been made extra-clear after white women helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016, and also broke for the GOP on Tuesday.
By confining women and their interests to one party, there is a risk of turning certain issues ― like health care, or paid leave, or equal pay ― into partisan concerns. Consequently, women become excluded from crucial conversations: Remember that all-male Republican group convened to decide the fate of reproductive health care early on in the Trump administration?
“It further politicizes the kinds of issues that matter to the women who were elected,” said Lawless. “Those issues that disproportionately affect women are now going to be seen even more as Democratic issues.”
Yet there’s wider consensus nationwide on many of these matters. For example, an overwhelming majority of Americans support paid leave.
Equal representation for women is important to our whole democracy ― not just the Democratic Party.