More Republican Women Have Been Elected to Congress. But They Can Do Better.
By Catherine Wineinger | February 14, 2022
Catherine Wineinger is an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University.
Political pundits have deemed 2020 “the Year of the Republican Woman.” Indeed, this past election cycle has resulted in record numbers of Republican women as candidates and elected officials. And yet, the partisan gap between Republican and Democratic women in Congress is still significant. In the 117th Congress, there are 39 Republican women compared to 105 women on the Democratic side of the aisle. And while a record of five Republican women of color were elected to the House of Representatives, about 90% of all women of color in Congress are Democrats.
What are the reasons behind these low numbers of Republican women in Congress, and what has been done to address these challenges? My book, Gendering the GOP (Oxford University Press), shines new light on Republican women’s underrepresentation in Congress, the gains they made in 2020, and the gender dynamics they must continue to navigate in their party. My research shows how polarization has encouraged Republican women to identify and work together as partisan women, developing a what I call a “partisan-gender identity.” Yet, while this partisan-gender identity has helped to elect more women in the short-term, it may also pose long-term barriers to entry for potential future Republican women candidates.
Why Aren’t There More Republican Women in Congress?
Several factors explain Republican women’s underrepresentation in Congress. First, Republican women run for office at lower rates than Democratic women. As polarization has increased over time, ideological moderates in both parties have been less likely to run for office. This has had significant implications for Republican women, who tend to be more moderate than Republican men.
Second, ideological constraints play a role even when Republican women do run for office. For instance, Republican women have typically had a hard time making it though their primary elections, in part because they are (or are perceived to be) more moderate than their male counterparts.
Second, ideological constraints play a role even when Republican women do run for office. For instance, Republican women have typically had a hard time making it though their primary elections, in part because they are (or are perceived to be) more moderate than their male counterparts. Thus, in an increasingly conservative party, support in the primaries remains an important factor for getting GOP women elected.
Third, the infrastructure in place to recruit and fund women candidates has typically been much stronger for Democratic women than for Republican women. Organizations dedicated to electing Democratic women out-raise and out-spend similar groups on the right. This is in part due to a Republican party culture that values traditional gender roles, emphasizes conservative ideology, and rejects what it perceives to be “identity politics.”
But as 2020 has shown, improvements in candidate emergence and primary wins are possible. Here’s how the mobilization of a partisan-gender identity may have contributed to this shift – and what it can tell us about the future of Republican women’s representation in Congress.
What is a Partisan-Gender Identity?
My research examines changes in the way Republican women engage in gendered rhetoric and organize as women in the House of Representatives. Through content analyses of floor speeches and in-depth interviews with women members of Congress, I compare Republican women’s experiences in two time periods: 1993-1997 and 2013-2017.
Compared to the 1990s, contemporary Republican women in Congress are more conservative, more ideologically aligned with the men in their party, and further apart ideologically from their Democratic women colleagues.
Compared to the 1990s, contemporary Republican women in Congress are more conservative, more ideologically aligned with the men in their party, and further apart ideologically from their Democratic women colleagues. In addition, the power and visibility of Democratic women has grown over time, and attacks against the GOP as an “anti-woman” party have become increasingly common.
It is this political context that has incentivized Republican women to mobilize around their partisan-gender identity – i.e. to work together not simply as partisans or as women, but as partisan women. In the House, Republican women have mentored one another, supported each other’s legislation through formal groups and informal networks, and collectively organized special order speeches and press conferences.
Compared to the 1990s, the gendered rhetoric Republican women have used in recent years has also been more consistently aligned with their party’s ideological positions and electoral goals. Increasingly, Republican congresswomen have framed anti-abortion legislation as policies that could “protect women,” have used their experiences as mothers to take conservative stances on issues ranging from gun rights to national security, and have countered Democratic claims of a “war on women” by highlighting their identity as Republican women.
One result of these changes has been more attention to recruiting and supporting GOP women candidates. Republican congresswomen have worked to convince party leadership that investing in Republican women can benefit the party and is therefore an electoral strategy worth pursuing. While this has been an uphill battle, party leaders eventually supported efforts like Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC, which funds women through their primary elections.
The wave of Democratic congresswomen elected in 2018 has also activated a partisan-gender identity among potential Republican women candidates. In the words of Republican Stephanie Bice, who went on to defeat Democratic incumbent Kendra Horn, “Conservative women said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, not every woman is a Democrat.”
A Double-Edged Sword?
The support system Republican women are building for one another is important and should not be overlooked. It is the result of identifying and organizing together as Republican women. At the same time, we know that many of the obstacles Republican women face are rooted in ideology and party culture. Tackling this issue will take more work.
At the same time, we know that many of the obstacles Republican women face are rooted in ideology and party culture. Tackling this issue will take more work.
My research shows how party leaders actively support women’s representation in party messaging roles in an effort to enhance the reputation of the party. That means that the increasingly partisan and conservative rhetoric used by Republican women in Congress gets amplified, sending a message to potential candidates that the GOP is not welcoming to moderate women.
What can be done to deepen the bench of Republican women in Congress? Using a partisan-gender identity to challenge the culture and ideology of the Republican Party is one course of action. Can Republican women come together, as Republican women, to push for reforms that would diversify the party – in terms of gender, race, and ideology? Doing so would begin to address the long-term, root causes of women’s underrepresentation in the GOP.
Catherine Wineinger is an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University and the author of Gendering the GOP: Intraparty Politics and Republican Women’s Representation in Congress.
Featured photo by Trump White House Archived, public domain