Since Congress first convened in 1789, women have constituted only 2 percent of the roughly 12,000 who have served in the House and Senate. The first woman to serve in the Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Democrat from Georgia who was offered the seat after the incumbent died in office. She kept the job for exactly one day before being succeeded by a man. Senator Felton's term, in November 1922, fell only two years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. In the 87 years since Felton, only 37 women have held Senate seats, and many of them, especially early on, were temporarily filling vacancies caused by deaths.
In 1949, Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate Republican from Maine who had served four full House terms, became the first woman to enter the Senate after being elected in an open race. She remains the longest-tenured woman in the Senate, serving four full terms. Most important, she was the first person—man or woman—to stand up to the out-of-control far-right wing of her own party and denounce Sen. Joseph McCarthy's tactics. (You could say McCarthy was the original inventor of the litmus test for Republicans.) Enough is enough, she said in her famous "Declaration of Conscience" speech, and for that she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom years later. Another moderate Republican, Olympia Snowe, now holds Smith's seat.
Only 13 Republican women have ever served in the Senate, and most of them were moderates. That's no accident. Women—especially moderate women—have a great message. They are outsiders in the halls of power. They hold tremendous appeal for independents, and most women have a nonideological way of getting along with others. They're not interested in being like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh.
When it comes to those in Congress, researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago found that female legislators write more bills, get more cosponsors, and bring more money back to their districts on average than their male counterparts do. That may have to do with their personalities: The type who are willing to run these days are probably not shrinking violets. Multiple studies have shown that people believe there is a bias against female candidates for office, that female officeholders are more likely to face challengers, and that the women themselves doubt their own ability to raise money and get elected. Despite this, more women than ever before are winning seats in the House and Senate. But most of them are not Republicans, for good reasons.
Take Dede Scozzafava, the state legislator whom the GOP nominated to fill an open House seat in upstate New York until conservative opposition drove her from the race with the national party's applause. It was a cringe-worthy moment for Republican women. I know I was conflicted. The fiscal conservative in me thought she had gone too far left economically (especially after she dropped out and endorsed her Democratic opponent, who eventually won), but the socially moderate woman in me watched her guts it up and run for higher office, only to have a well-funded male candidate swoop in with the support of national conservatives and force her out of the race. After the way some conservatives have gone after Snowe for voting in favor of healthcare reform and now are targeting Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in her race for the governorship of Texas, why would any moderate Republican woman want to run for office these days?
"Women tend to have a more practical, less ideological way of approaching life and, therefore, approaching politics, and our party doesn't always take kindly to that," fiscally conservative and socially moderate former Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican, told Politico. Maybe the all-male GOP establishment thought it was doing a good thing by nominating a more ideological woman from a rural state for vice president in 2008. But few of the urban, independent women I know connected with Sarah Palin's extremism. Ironically, having her on the ticket seemed to feed the notion that the men just don't understand.