Where Are the Women in Congress?

I attended a very interesting presentation today at Case Western Reserve University by Karen Beckwith a political science professor at the university. Her topic: The Widening Party Gap in Electing Women to Congress

I probably don't need to tell you which side of the gap each party is on.

Dr. Beckwith opened by offering figures to show what is going on. She said that until 1990, both the major parties elected about the same percentage of women — a very dismal, nearly invisible one. But as the percentage of women in Congress started to slowly creep upward to where it is today — 20% of the Senate, 17.7% of the House — they started to diverge. She provided figures that showed that while Democrats continue to make steady, if slow, gains, Republican women as a percentage of their delegation have decreased, falling from a high of just over 10% back into the single digits. Women comprise more than 20% of their delegation. Of the 20 women U.S.Senators, 16 are Democrats. 58 of the 77 women in the House are Democrats.

Many of us know the numbers well. I was most interested in hearing Beckwith's explanation — or conjecture — as to why the gap exists. Some of the obstacles to women running — they often wait until their families have grown, as Nancy Pelosi did; they may not have the same network of potential donors that men do — shouldn't have a party bias. Beckwith suggested that the fact that the gender gap in voters — with women voting more Democratic — might be one explanation, although she added that there is no proof that voters will necessarily favor a candidate of the same gender.

She offered up another theory that I found really intriguing. She said that people tend to perceive women candidates as more liberal than men. She added that if Republicans thought strategically, it could give them an edge if they ran women in swing districts or districts that lean only slightly Republican, whether the candidate really IS more moderate or not.

But, she went on, that doesn't take into account TODAY'S Republican party, where purity of ultra-conservative beliefs is virtually a requirement in a primary campaign. So, she said, you now see women candidates who, in order to reassure voters that THEY aren't soft-headed liberals nosiree, depict themselves as (she said somewhat apologetically) "conservative to the point of lunacy." Today's Republican Party with its ultra-conservative primary voter base simply isn't interested in candidates who can cross ideological lines and appeal to independents.

It occurred to me that the same thing has been going on with other groups that might be perceived as "liberal," like African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, and who don't generally favor Republicans. It's been the case for a while that, Michael Steele aside, black Republicans tend to be lunatics like Allen West. And the party's first Mexican-American in Congress (Its Hispanic delegation has previously been all Cuban-American) is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who seems to be fighting with Rand Paul for the honor of being the most divisive, extreme, and thoroughly unhinged member of the Senate.

Personally, I wonder too if the Republican Party's hostility to women in its policies and legislation doesn't project to women in its ranks as hostility to THEM.

Every single woman in the Senate (including all four Republicans) voted recently to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which GOP leadership is fighting tooth-and-nail. Back in 2009, when the first bill the Obama administration signed in early 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which gave women the ability to sue for unequal pay, all of the Republican women then in the Senate broke with ALL their male colleagues to vote FOR it. (Well, actually, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania also voted for it. Three months later, he announced he was leaving the GOP and becoming a Democrat.) I'm not sure I would want to be part of a political party that projected that much hostility toward my demographic group.

It just doesn't strike me that a party that sponsors a hearing on contraception featuring only male speakers, saying that they don't think there are any women with the gravitas to speak on the issue, is a party that is going to work to close the partisan gender gap in Congress, or anywhere else.

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