The House of Representatives may have a record number of women legislators next year, but they're mainly to be found in the ranks of out-of-power Democrats.
It is an unfortunate side effect of the paucity of Republican women who successfully contend for Congress that GOP wave elections tend to stall the overall advancement of women into the ranks of the House and Senate, while Democratic wave years lift their numbers.
And so it was in 2012. It wasn't quite a wave year for Democrats, but it was a surprisingly good one for them, considering the economic backdrop -- which meant it was a predictably good election for new women in the House and Senate. Thanks to the influx of Democratic women, along with a smattering of Republicans, the U.S. Congress in 2013 will have a record number of women senators and representatives.
But against this backdrop of increasing diversity, the leaders of the major House committees are going to continue to look like attendees of a private social club circa 1963 -- and also the leaders of the House committees in 1963. When the House Republican Steering Committee announced its recommendations for leaders of the major committees Tuesday, every listed figure was a white man.
That's because the House is, as Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday, "an outpost in Democratic-controlled Washington." And the women in Congress are, by a margin of two-to-one, mainly Democrats. In fact, women made up only about 10 percent of House Republicans in the 112th Congress, compared to about 26 percent of House Democrats (there's some minor variation in the numbers across the time period due to resignations and special elections). That puts House Republicans about two decades behind Democrats when it comes to diversifying their ranks.
The reasons for this are many and complicated, according to interviews over the past two years with dozens of Republican women elected officials and advocates interested in seeing the ranks of female GOP leaders increase. One commonly cited reason: conservative values on family and child-rearing, which make conservative women with children still in the home more reluctant to run for office while their kids might need them, and which make GOP voters less sympathetic to their electoral bids if they do run while those kids are very young. A sense that the local Republican leadership doesn't really support them is another major factor; many pioneering GOP women, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Alaska governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, tell tales of rising in spite of the preferences of the men in their local party apparatus, and running as outsiders against GOP machines that were less than happy to see them contend for high office. GOP women also uniquely face the problem that those districts most likely to elect women (urban, diverse, kind of upscale -- like Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco one) are also those most likely to elect Democrats.
The upshot is that the gender gap at the polls is mirrored in office, and the world of elected Republican figures remains much more male than the world of elected Democrats. And that can't help but be reflected in the composition of the party's leaders.
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