Earlier this week, a colleague was speaking to a community group about women in the 2012 elections and CAWP’s work to increase women’s political representation. The first question she was asked, in light of the tragedy that struck Newtown, Connecticut just days earlier, was what role women in office would play in the ensuing legislative debate over gun control. Where do the current female members of Congress stand on gun issues? And does the increased number of women in office make it more (or less) likely that anti-gun measures will pass? There are no concrete answers to these questions, as “gun control” encompasses myriad types of reforms and the women in congress do not represent a unified bloc on this or any issue. But looking to history might be helpful to formulating hypotheses about what role women might play if gun control is, in fact, put on the legislative agenda. In 1994, Congress passed a ten-year assault weapons ban (AWB) under a title of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (HR 3355) by a vote of 235 to 195. At the time, there were 54 women in Congress – just 10% representation. Despite these numbers, women played a prominent role in the 1994 ban. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was the architect and chief sponsor of the AWB and worked tirelessly to get enough votes to attach it to the Senate version of the crime bill. In the House, women were disproportionately represented among the members whipping the vote to be sure that the bill included the ban.
When it came to a vote, 83% of the women in the House, and all but one woman in the Senate, voted in favor of the assault weapons ban; men were more evenly split, with 50% of men in the House and 59% of men in the Senate voting for the ban. Partisanship plays an important role in votes on this issue, but women in both parties were more likely to vote for the ban than were their male counterparts (see charts). Much has changed since 1994. Women have nearly doubled their representation in Congress – when the 113th Congress begins on January 3rd, women will take 18% (or 98) of the House and Senate seats. With that increase comes greater regional, racial, and ideological diversity among the women who serve. Probably most different is the increased conservatism among the Republican women who now serve, which may make it harder than it was 18 years ago to find bipartisan support for new restrictions on gun ownership. Because there have been so few gun control votes in recent years, one of the only indicators we have of potential support for such legislation is National Rifle Association (NRA) ratings. Based on grades given to members of the 113th Congress, women represent a disproportionate percentage of the House (34%) and Senate (37%) members labeled as anti-gun by the NRA. However, the NRA grades all 20 Republican women in the House and 3 of 4 female Republican senators as strongly pro-gun; one female House Democrat and one Democratic woman in the Senate are also given “A” grades by the gun lobby. The context (post-Newtown) and content (e.g. only targeting assault weapons) of any pending legislative debate matters and may yield votes that do not mirror these particular ratings, but only time will tell. What we do know for now is that Senator Feinstein has vowed to re-introduce an updated assault weapons ban when the congressional session opens in January and, if history is any guide, will fight furiously to garner support in both chambers. Some pro-gun members have already said they would be open to restrictions on military-grade weapons, and House Democrat Carolyn McCarthy (NY), a long-time anti-gun advocate, has vowed she will give “full force” to reform efforts and will “embarrass” President Obama if he does not stay true to his promise of policy change. It’s no surprise that these two women will be leading the charge to respond to recent gun tragedies. Both women know intimately the horrors of gun violence and have used personal tragedies to fuel policy priorities. Moreover, they represent constituencies beyond their geographic borders, speaking on behalf of women in the electorate who – based on yesterday’s Pew Poll - are significantly more likely than men to prioritize gun control over gun rights. It will take both men and women at all levels to change our nation’s policies around guns, and having more women in Congress does not guarantee movement in either direction – holding firm on rights or putting more restrictions in place. But, women – as politicians, advocates, and citizens - will be essential players in this national debate.
Just one week after 19 new women were elected to the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference with the current caucus of Democratic women members to announce that she would once again put her name forward for the Democrat’s top spot in the House. Raising some eyebrows and eliciting heckles from the cadre of women on the stage, journalist Luke Russert suggested that her decision to stay on posed obstacles to leadership for younger members. After noting that the same question is never asked of men in leadership, the 72 year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight pointed to the gendered dimension of members’ ages:
"I knew that my male colleagues...had a jump on me because they didn't have children to stay home [with]. …You got to take off about 14 years from me because I was home raising a family."
Pelosi’s comments raise important questions to consider for today’s class of women officeholders. As has been historically true, do women enter office at later ages than their male counterparts? Are they more likely to wait until their children are older to run and serve? And, finally, what does this mean for increasing women’s representation? Let’s take a look at the newly sworn-in 113th House of Representatives. The average age of all members is about 56 years old, but the key statistic of interest for these questions is the average age at which members took office. In the 113th, the average age of taking office is just over 47 years old, but there is a significant difference between male and female members: women’s average age of entering the House is 50.2 years old and men average 46.7 years old upon taking their congressional oath of office. While not the 14-year expanse cited by Pelosi, this data demonstrates that women continue to enter office – in this case, congressional office – later than their male colleagues, which has implications for institutional seniority and leadership posts. When we include all members into these calculations, some of the most gender-significant age divides – those tied to childbearing and childrearing – may be disguised. Another cut at the congressional membership shows that about 19% of female members in the 113th took office at age 40 or under, compared to 25% of male members. Of the 83 freshman members (64 male, 19 female), 32 men and only 1 woman currently have children under age 18. Put more clearly, half of the new male members come to Washington, DC while their children are still at home and all but one of the new female members either have no children or have adult children. In survey responses, female state legislators are significantly more likely than their male colleagues to say that their decision to run for office was influenced by their children being “old enough.” Not only does this finding have implications for women who start their political career in the state legislatures before heading to Congress, but it also echoes Leader Pelosi’s sentiment regarding the unique responsibilities and considerations that women confront in making the decision to enter public office. Children and families are not the sole source of delay for women. Women’s motivations for office are more likely to emerge from issue involvement over time rather than a long-time desire to hold office, which is more common among men. Moreover, women continue to need greater encouragement to run for office, and often feel the need to gather greater experience and/or training than their male peers. Regardless of the cause for delay, women’s later entry into office at both the state legislative and congressional levels can have real implications for women’s institutional power, political advancement, and ambition and/or ability to seek higher office. At her November press conference, Leader Pelosi expressed hope for the next generation of women leaders, saying, “I want women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age so that their seniority would start to count much sooner.” To meet that desire, more will need to be done to both encourage and enable young women to run for office. A nudge from the first female Speaker of the House is probably not a bad place to start.
- “Challenge yourselves.” - Kate Brown, Director of Center for Creative Learning at the Mississippi University for Women
- “You are the next generation of leaders.” – Heather McTeer Toney, former Mayor of Greenville, MS and Executive Director of the Women’s Institute for Excellence at Mississippi Valley State University
- “Self-awareness is always included in the definition of leadership.” – Carole Leland, International Leadership Consultant
- “Don’t let yourself think you can’t do something; let your heart tell you what you can do.” – Heather McTeer Toney, former Mayor of Greenville, MS and Executive Director of the Women’s Institute for Excellence at Mississippi Valley State University
- “Remember three words: be, know, and do. Be who you are. Know who you are and what you stand for. Take action.” - Amy Tuck, former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
- “Respect does not come with the job title; you have to earn it.” - Amy Tuck, former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
- “People don’t care how much you know until they know you care” - John Maxwell
- “Be willing to extend a helping hand even if they will advance beyond you.” – Amy Tuck, former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
- “You can’t get to second base if you have a foot still on first.” – Amy Tuck, former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
- Don’t be afraid to say “I was wrong.”
- If someone tells you “Good Job”, make them tell you why so you will know what to continue or repeat.
- You may need others’ help to achieve your goals, but don’t forget that others may need your help to succeed too.
- The road to success is always under construction.
- Team sports participation is important because it teaches you that you’ll lose sometimes, but you have to move on and try again.
- God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen twice as much as you speak.
- “If someone ever tells you something can’t be done, what they’re really telling you is ‘I don’t know how to do it’.” – Neely Carlton, former Mississippi state senator
- “Never ever ever burn a bridge.” - Sherry Vance, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens, and Cannada, PLLC
- “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker
- Challenge people if they say derogatory things about women.
- More people should challenge the world and our traditions.
- Your goal should be to be so good at what you do that others can’t ignore you.
- “Women can do what they want; they are made of an indescribable fiber.” – MS Commissioner of Agriculture Cindy Hyde Smith
- “If you want a job talked about, get a man. If you want a job done, get a woman.” – Liz Welch, Secretary of the Mississippi State Senate
- “Don’t tell someone no. Just accept the opportunity and become an expert in it.” – Ashley Buckman, Jones/Walker
- Capitalize on the opportunities you are given. They may look small in front of you, but they are huge behind you.
- You can’t put a dollar amount on experience.
- Develop relationships with the people you work with and also those involved with the position you want.
- You can’t be all things to all people. (Amen.)
- Be flexible. Nothing is going to go as planned. Don’t over plan your life. Let life come to you.
- Remember that a small change you make will make a large difference down the line. (Hello, butterfly effect.)
- Never compromise your integrity.
- Keep people’s confidences.
- Always give back. (Hmmm this sounds familiar… http://luckettmenow.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/always-come-back/)
- Always take chances to expand your knowledge.
- Keep your main themes to remind the people why you are there.
- Show your passion.
- If you say you don’t like/agree with something, make sure to offer a solution or alternative.
- Work together.
- Do your homework.
- Be focused and less vague when speaking on a point.
- Uplift and support your colleagues during the presentation and behind the scenes.
- Be aware of who you are around. Be formal especially when addressing those who have worked hard for the title they hold.
- Women put families and careers first, entering politics would be a "third job;"
- Women believe they are not qualified;
- Women are not recruited to be candidates by their political parties.