Despite the fact that many women ran in the primaries for the 2010 midterm elections, when the 112th Congress is sworn in this January, there will be a decline in the number of female members in Congress.
Women in the next US Congress are projected to make up just 16 percent of the members, down from 17 percent in the previous Congress. Although the actual number of seats lost is not a huge number, the change is still significant because it is the first decrease that women in Congress have seen in 30 years.
Although the number of women in Congress has never been close to proportional to that of the American population, for the past three decades each Congress has seen a steady increase in the number of women holding seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. This trend began in 1978, and women have slowly made progress in each succeeding election.
The election cycle started out looking promising for women, with more female candidates seeking nominations than ever before. During the primaries, 262 women ran for House seats, which marks an increase from the previous record of 222 set in 1992, a year that was called the “Year of the Women.” Of the 113 female Republican candidates who challenged incumbents, only 32 were successful. Of the 80 Democratic women who challenged incumbents, 37 were elected.
Although female Republican candidates like Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle drew a lot of attention in the general election, they lost in their respective races. The Tea Party played a big role in many elections in this cycle.
Boston College professor Abigail Brooks, who teaches sociology and women’s studies, said that a possible reason for the decrease of women in Congress this year can be attributed to the general anger against the Democrats. She said in an email, “I might also hypothesize that since, in this election cycle, there was a backlash against the Democratic party and the progressive policies the party advocates, that there would be a corresponding backlash or decline in women’s representation in politics,” Brooks said. “Since, despite some recent high-profile Republican female candidates, generally speaking, the majority of women running, and currently holding, political office in the United States are Democrats.”
Although recent, visible female politicians like Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin are remaining very active in American politics, the US is far behind other countries with respect to female representation in governing institutions. According to a report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the US ranks 90th in the percentage of women represented in the country’s houses of government. This is also due to the fact that many countries have certain quotas that need to be filled so that a proportional number of women can be elected.
Not only will the number of women in Congress decrease, but many of the female members of Congress will also lose their leadership roles. Since the Republicans will have a majority in the House, they will take control of leadership and committee positions.
The most notable change will be that of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House and the first woman to hold the position. This position will go to John Boehner, who is the current Republican House Minority Leader. Three women who are currently chairwomen of committees will also lose their seats. These include Rep. Louise Slaughter of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Nydia Velázquez of the Small Business Committee and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of the House Ethics Committee.
The change of leadership in the Senate will not change as drastically since the Democrats will still hold the majority. The most notable leadership change for female Senators will be Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is currently chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee and lost her re-election race in November. There will still be three female committee chairwomen, Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer on the Environment and Public Works Committee and Sen. Mary Landrieu on the Small Business Committee, all of whom are Democrats.
According to Brooks, the lack of female leaders in our current society, especially in politics, can be attributed to the difficulty that many women face because of stereotypes in our culture.
“It continues to be somewhat difficult for many Americans to conceive of a female president because of deeply embedded, and I would argue socially and culturally constructed, beliefs about women’s characteristics — overly emotional, a lack of intelligence and rationality, a lack of toughness and strength — as distinct from men’s,” Brooks said.
It is still unclear how this more conservative Congress will govern differently. Brooks said that it could mean there will be less attention paid to issues that affect women.
“Having less women represented in politics also means less attention, awareness, and policy work focused on aspects that effect women disproportionately such as affordable, quality childcare, maternity and paternity leave, reproductive rights, violence against women, the wage gap, among other issues,” Brooks said.
Some female members of Congress have voiced concern that the number of women is considerably low. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told CNN, “It does concern me that there are not more women in leadership positions. That I do think is disappointing.”
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington has said that women in leadership positions are an important part of Congress.
“It is an important voice that is heard at the table and it’s a little different perspective than the men bring,” McMorris Rodgers told CNN. “It’s important that we are reflecting America.”
Despite the loss in Congress, women made considerable progress in gubernatorial races. Three states elected their first female governors: Susana Martínez in New Mexico, who is also the first Latina governor in the US, Nikki Haley in South Carolina, and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma. All three of these women are Republicans.
“It traditionally has been more difficult for women to break the executive glass ceiling than the legislative glass ceiling,” Collins said. “It is highly significant.”