My sister worked after college as a receptionist for a congressman. One day, the male chief of staff arrived for work and dumped a bag full of shoes on her desk. "Take these down to the shoe shine for me," he said, breezing by. "That's not my job," she insisted. "I won't do it." "Oh, yes, it is," the chief of staff countered. Then he looked her right in the eye and said, through clenched teeth, while standing mere steps from the Capitol of the United States, "This is not a democracy." She quit right there and walked out the door.
That was 25 years ago, and Capitol Hill still isn't a democracy. Even though a higher percentage of women than men vote and more than half of the electorate is female, Capitol Hill is still a man's world. And despite the fact that there is a female speaker of the House for the first time in history, only about 20 percent of Democratic seats in the House and Senate are held by women, and even fewer—10 percent—of GOP seats are. The truth is that women are underrepresented in our democracy. Why?
Research conducted by Brown University shows women are less likely to run for office in the first place, for reasons having to do with women's perceptions of themselves. They're less likely to perceive themselves as "qualified," less likely to be recruited to run, and less likely to express ambition for running for office. All of that rings true to me.
Another consideration is that most women are the primary caregivers in their families—whether they work full time or not, Republican or Democratic—and many are part of the "sandwich" generation, raising kids and caring for aging parents at the same time. Most members of Congress are lucky if their families accompany them to Washington; many spouses stay back in the district with the kids while the officeholder commutes back and forth weekly. No one likes to admit it, but that's a lot easier for a dad to pull off than for a mom. Granted, members of Congress do have most of the summer off, frequent recesses, and free healthcare, but that's not a situation most women see and say, "Sign me up!" The few who do sign up are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.
From what I can tell, there are several reasons for what Politico this week called "the minority within a minority," the shrinking number of Republican women in elected office. First, there's the math. A recent Gallup Poll shows women are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans by a 14-point margin, 41 percent to 27 percent. Historically, women have been more likely to say they are Democrats, but the gap clearly is widening. Plus, with more voters overall identifying themselves as Democrats than Republicans, there are more Democrats from whom to recruit female candidates—and from whom to get votes.
Twenty years ago, women elected to Congress were nearly as likely to be Republican as Democratic. But that's changed as fewer and fewer women run for fewer and fewer GOP seats. Democrats hold majorities in both Houses, and the built-in advantages to incumbents have been well documented. According to pollsters Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake, women themselves are more likely to vote for incumbents. "Ironically, this natural bias toward re-electing incumbents is one reason many women who run for office as challengers are unsuccessful," they report. With Democrats in power, those challengers are more likely to be Republicans.
But there is also a cultural problem for Republican recruiters. Maine's Olympia Snowe, one of four GOP women currently serving in the U.S. Senate, said recently: "[We] as a party are saying we're not supporting Republican moderates. That's a terrible message to send. . . . It tells everyone else in America who might have an interest in running as a Republican moderate, they're going to have to think twice. The messages coming out of the national party are critical. They've got to be embracive and inclusive of political diversity. They can't on one hand say we're going to build a majority and then say we only want people with certain characteristics, like white males from the South. That's a concern to me."