The 2016 election cycle broke relatively little ground for women’s representation in Washington. Aside from Hillary Clinton’s failure to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling in the presidential election race, the number of women set to serve in the 115th Congress next January remains stagnant. Among the Republican majority, women actually lost seats in the House of Representatives. While the newly re-elected Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has stated that 2017 was going to be about “doing big things for our country, ” it is worth considering the role that Republican women officeholders will play as policy makers and messengers as the Party hopes to enact significant reforms now that Republicans also control the White House.
Based on two important measures of clout, the number of women serving in party leadership and as committee chairs, Republican women’s voice as leaders in formulating in those “big things” promised by the Speaker may be muted. However, their voice as messengers to articulate the Party’s vision may be more prominent as Republicans continue to grapple with expanding their base of voters to include more women.
Come January, Republican women will again serve in the majority but in slightly smaller numbers than they did in the previous Congress with two fewer members. Twenty-one Republican women will serve in the House. Kelly Ayotte, the sole Republican woman senator up for re-election in this cycle, lost her race which brings the total number of Republican women senators serving in the institution to five. Republican women in both chambers account for less than 10 percent of their party’s caucuses. By comparison, Democratic women members significantly outnumber their Republican counterparts and, by virtue of the party’s minority status with fewer Democratic members, account for a much larger percentage, about a third, of their party’s caucuses in each chamber. Further, Republican women’s underrepresentation is also seen by their general absence in party leadership and as committee chairs.
Republican party leadership in the House and Senate is almost entirely comprised of white men. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was renamed as House Republican Conference Chair while Mimi Walters was named as sophomore representative. Of the nearly two dozen House committees, only two Republican women will serve as chairs; Virginia Foxx will chair the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Susan Brooks will chair the Committee on Ethics. Two Republican women will chair Senate committees – Lisa Murkowski on Energy and Natural Resources, and Susan Collins on Aging. There are no Republican women in formal Senate leadership positions, although in the 114th Congress Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed four “counsels” to broaden Senate leadership, two of whom were women.
Previously, Republicans were open in recognizing the importance of women leaders. Indeed, in 2014, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers stated, “Messengers are important, and having a broad spectrum of members who represent that background – youth, women, Hispanics, every walk of life – is important.” More recently, however, Republicans have not only rejected the idea of gender diversity within the Party as a goal but dismissed it as “identity politics” embraced by the losing Democrats. Republican pollster and Trump campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, agreed with Bernie Sanders who recently called on Democrats to move away from “identity politics.” Sanders advocated for a focus on progressive issues instead.
Republican women seeking elective office may have cause to downplay their gender on the campaign trail. Danielle Thomsen finds that Republican women candidates are disadvantaged in contested primaries as they are incorrectly perceived to be less conservative than their male primary opponents. Moreover, in the important area of campaign fundraising, Melody Crowder-Meyer and Rosalyn Cooperman find that Democratic and Republican donors differentially prioritize using money to increase the number of women representatives. Karin Kitchens and Michele Swers find that campaign finance networks available to Republican women candidates, particularly in primaries, is significantly underdeveloped. For their part, rank and file Republicans express a similar disinterest in gender diversity. In an October 2016 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, a majority of Americans (58 percent) believe the country would be better off if there were more women serving in public office. However, the support for women serving differs significantly based on respondents’ party affiliation. More than three quarters (77 percent) of Democrats agree but fewer than four in ten (37 percent) of Republicans – including only 42 percent of Republican women – agree that the country would be better off with more women holding public office. In other words, if anyone is bothered by the low profile of Republican women members in the Republican-led Congress, it’s probably not Republicans.
And yet despite these myriad challenges, Republican women members will likely serve an important and highly visible role in promoting the Party’s message in the 115th Congress, particularly in articulating components of the House Republicans’ “Better Way” vision and Republican Party policy messages more broadly. Melissa Deckman’s work on Tea Party women illustrates how conservative women frame conservative issues in women-friendly ways. For example, women leaders on the right argue that cutting taxes is good for American families as it allows them to spend money as they best see fit; or, they maintain that lowering the national debt safeguards future generations. As congressional Republicans work to address policy priorities like replacing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, or overhauling immigration regulations, Republican women members are particularly well suited to articulate why these policies will benefit American families.
In the 2016 election, Republicans performed exceptionally well with white working class men and women. Even so, the Party faces challenges in appealing to women voters, particularly college-educated women and women of color, as it becomes an even whiter, mostly male party in its leadership. In the 115th Congress there will be fewer Republican women members than in Congresses past. Despite the Party’s rejection of identity politics, party leaders will likely rely heavily on these Republican women members to articulate a policy vision that is both women and family friendly if they wish to remain in control of Congress.