House Leadership Shake-Up – a Missed Opportunity for Women?


The upcoming resignation of Speaker John Boehner created a vacancy on the Republican House leadership ladder, with the anticipated succession of current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the speakership. Would this be the moment to add another woman to the largely male team? Apparently not, with the most logical choice, current GOP Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) choosing to keep her current role rather than seeking to succeed McCarthy. That left no space for Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), who had expressed interest in the conference chair  spot  if McMorris Rodgers had run for Majority Leader.

Leadership roles in the 114th Congress are largely the province of men on both sides of the aisle. In the Senate, Patty Murray (D-WA) is Democratic Conference Secretary, and the only woman chairing a committee is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who leads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. On the House side, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), still the only woman ever to serve as Speaker, has led her party in the House for more than 12 years and remains Democratic Leader. McMorris Rodgers is the sole woman in the GOP leadership, and just one woman, Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-MI) chairs a House committee.

Looking at the numbers of women in each party’s caucus, it’s clear that the GOP has far fewer women, both numerically and proportionately, than the Democrats.  Women make up almost a third of the Democratic members of Congress, but less than one eighth of the Republicans.

 

Democratic Women/
Total Democrats (%)
Republican Women/
Total Republicans (%)

Total Women

Senate
14/46 (30.4%)
6/54 (11.1%)
20/100 (20%)
House
62/188 (33.0%)
22/247 (8.9%)
84/435 (19.3%)

 
This means that when openings arise, Republicans don’t have a deep bench from which to choose a woman to step up to the plate. And while it’s far too early for meaningful numbers, CAWP’s list of potential candidates for 2016 congressional elections already shows similarly disproportionate numbers building (perhaps because the tally so far includes mostly incumbents and fewer challengers or seekers of open seats).

While many argue that the gender of candidates and officeholders is insignificant, CAWP has decades of research demonstrating varied ways in which women from both parties change both the process of politics and the issues that reach the public docket.  Although the contentious clamor of the presidential race makes 2016 seem very close indeed, and although some filing deadlines for 2016 races are as early as November or December of 2015, there’s still time for women to step forward to run – if not for Congress, certainly for state legislatures and local offices. That’s the only route to building the numbers so women are in place and ready to claim leadership roles in the future.   

Kathy Kleeman has been at the Center since 1980. She writes or edits many of the Center's proposals and publications and has led CAWP’s work with Girl Scouts. Kleeman earned her A.B. from Harvard/Radcliffe and her Ed.M. from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.