Women have never made up an enormous chunk of Congress. In 1917, there was exactly one woman in Congress: a Republican named Jeannette Rankin in the House of Representatives. There were 531 members of Congress at the time, meaning that women, who made up 48.8 percent of the United States population at the time, made up 0.19 percent of the country's highest governing body.
The United States has come a long way since then. In 2019, women make up 23.6 percent of Congress, with 25 Senators and 101 Representatives. In the past 102 years, women have been able to get elected at rising rates in a country that is progressively taking women's rights and equality seriously. While the numbers look good, there is still a large disparity that is not looked at as deeply as the blanket statement numbers: Democrats have been electing women at a rising rate while Republicans have started to eliminate the number of women they elect.
When political scientists and news outlets tell us that more women are being elected to Congress now than ever before, we're likely to see that as something across the board, in every subset a woman could be a part of. And for the most part, that's true. The number of African American women serving in Congress rose from 21to 25 in the last election season; the number of Asian Pacific American women and Hispanic women has also risen in recent years and certainly since the beginning of our government as a whole.
But while other subgroups of women have been steadily rising in the rates in which they get elected, one subgroup has decreased: Republican women. Democrats have been electing women at a steadily increased rate as other subgroups increased as well: between 2015 and 2019, the number of Democrat women serving in Congress rose from 76 to 105. In that same amount of time, the number of Republican women serving in Congress decreased from 28 to 21.
This may not seem like a giant leap down for Republicans. A seven-person decrease doesn't seem like all that much. But when it comes on the heels of other statistics, it becomes more and more problematic. Women in the Republican party make up only 8.4 percent of the total delegation in Congress as a whole: 21 out of 250 total current Republicans in Congress are women. 8 out of their 53 senators are women, and 13 of their 197 representatives are women--15.1 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively. There is the same number of Republican women serving in Congress today as there was in 1995. The Democratic party, on the other hand, has almost tripled its number of elected women since that time, going from 36 female Congress members to 105 in the past fourteen years.
So why is this happening? There isn't a solid consensus on it. But there are certain things we know are not the reason. Republican women are still running. It is common in the Trump era for us to believe that perhaps there are simply not as many Republican women anymore--that they have been turned off from the party by the president. But this isn't the case. In 2016, 47 women ran for the House of Representatives--and 23 won. But in 2018, 52 women ran for the House of Representatives and only 13 won. Republican women are still running, and at an increasing rate. But they aren't being elected.
There are some political scientists who believe that the reason Republican women aren't winning their elections is because the Republican party as a whole isn't concerned with helping women win. The National Republican Congressional Committee's chair Tom Emmer has been quoted saying that he doesn't believe in identity politics, something that women are occasionally known for running under. Identity politics are defined as "a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc. to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics." Women have a common identity: their gender. It is easy for women to "band together" in a manner of speaking and run under the idea of having shared experiences with other women. Leaders of the Republican party have spoken out about not believing in this way to run, which can hurt the women who are running in their party as their voice is lost in the sea of other people running against them.
Republicans in Congress are going in the opposite direction as most of the country in electing women to national-level government positions. It is difficult for women to find a footing in the party in order to get elected, and oftentimes they are not assisted by the leaders of their party in running for office. This is something that men can take for granted, while women cannot. While the reasoning for a decrease in Republican women in Congress is scientifically unknown, it is very clear that the Republican party seems to be the only subgroup of government that is going in a different direction when it comes to electing women.
--Katherine McCafferty is a student studying Political Science at Brigham Young University