Women Democratic Surge Creates Congressional Gender Gap

Women Democrats of November 2012 Elections
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, center left, is applauded by female House Democrats during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2012. Pelosi, the first female speaker when Democrats controlled the chamber from 2007 to 2011, said she will stay for another two-year term. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

The gender gap that emerged among voters during the presidential election is manifesting itself in a new way: inside Congress.

The incoming Senate will have four times as many female Democrats compared with their Republican counterparts -- 16 to 4 -- and the imbalance will be almost 3 to 1 among female House members, 58 to 20.

The public portrait of the two parties diverged further yesterday when Senate Republicans elected a man to fill the only vacancy in their all-male leadership. The only woman in the House Republicans’ top leadership, conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, defeated a challenge by Representative Tom Price of Georgia, who was backed by Representative Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee from Wisconsin.

On the Democratic side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California announced yesterday that she would stay on for another two-year term. Pelosi served as the first and only woman speaker from 2007-2011. Senate Democrats re-elected their only female member of leadership -- Patty Murray of Washington -- as the fourth-ranking party official.

“Republicans have become extraordinarily out of touch with women, particularly women who are employed outside the home,” said Jean Schroedel, a professor in the Department of Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.

Year of Woman

Since 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman” when a wave of female candidates were elected to public office, “Democrats had to pay attention to women in a way they never had to before,” Schroedel said. In subsequent years they made disproportionate gains in electing women to office.

Pelosi emphasized the gender gap at a news conference yesterday where, surrounded by dozens of her female colleagues, she said she decided against giving up her leadership role just as congressional leaders begin negotiating a possible deal to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1.

“For some people in the general public, the thought of four men at that table was not an appealing sight, however excellent they might be,” Pelosi said.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is up for re-election in 2014, said the leadership elections may make it harder for her party to improve its standing with women voters, which should be a top priority.

More Than Half

“After all, women make up more than half of the electorate, and it was evident as I campaigned for some of my colleagues that the Democrats had been successful -- unfairly in my view -- in painting my party as somehow anti-women,” she said. “It does not help us correct that totally erroneous impression that we do not have women in leadership positions in the Senate and have only one woman in the House.”

Women voters, 53 percent of the electorate, backed President Barack Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent, according to exit polls. The number of Democratic women in the Senate and House increased, while Republican women in both chambers declined.

Among the outside groups that engaged in the election, Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights, was among the most successful after 80 percent of its endorsed House and Senate candidates won.

Democratic States

Democrats were well-positioned to send more women to the Senate because they nominated women in states that lean Democratic. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts all won comfortably in states that voted for Obama.

Another advantage for Democrats: they will have about 500 more female state legislators than the Republicans next year, providing a deeper bench from which to recruit experienced candidates.

“It’s important women be at all the tables,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, because they’re usually the primary caregivers and are more focused on issues such as health care, education, children and families.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who just won re-election, said that she has already talked with Republicans Collins and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire to see if there are issues they can work together on.

“We don’t revel in the conflict,” McCaskill said.

Voice on Issues

Ayotte said yesterday in an interview the lack of women in Senate Republican leadership ranks hasn’t kept her from having a voice on issues such as Republicans’ push to make sure suspected terrorists are tried in military rather than civilian courts.

“It’s more important how our opinions are sought, and that they are respected, than just optics on these issues,” Ayotte said.

A third benefit for Democrats, said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, is that women in the party “bring their own life experiences” to the public forum.

During the House debate in February 2011 to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides health services to women, Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, defended the organization by talking about her own abortion. Representative Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, said during a debate on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in March that she was the victim of rape and domestic abuse.

Republican Resonance

Ayotte said Republicans’ call for fiscal responsibility and economic growth resonates with women voters. “Women in families often handle the finances, and see up close the impact Washington has on them,” she said.

Ayotte said that while she would like to see more Republican women elected to Congress, there are other prominent women in the party, such as Governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Nikki Haley of South Carolina.

Republicans worsened the electorate’s gender gap in part because of comments by male candidates that offended female voters, including questioning what is “legitimate rape.”

“It’s not that the Republican Party has always been anti-woman, it’s just that in this election, it made it seem that way,” said Linda Young, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which endorses women candidates of both parties who support abortion rights.

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