Women Legislators and Party Politics


Women and Congressional Elections: A Century of Change

Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon

Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012, 283 pp., $26.50, paperback

How Women Represent Women: 
Political Parties, Gender, and Representation in the State Legislatures

By Tracy L. Osborn

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 228 pp., $74.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Glenna Matthews


On June 1, 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine and the only woman in the Senate, gave a fifteen-minute speech in which she denounced her fellow Republican Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, for his bullying and fear-mongering. Known as the Declaration of Conscience, her speech was the first time that a senator of either party had stood up to the man who was then intimidating entire industries and institutions with his freewheeling accusations of the Communist ties allegedly held by his victims. Smith’s action was especially courageous, because at that time she was the sole woman senator, while there were only nine women, out of 435 members, in the House of Representatives.

Nearly 62 years later another moderate Maine Republican woman, Senator Olympia Snowe, also made headlines. Her announcement on February 28, 2012, that she would not run for re-election was big news, because she made it plain that the hyperpartisanship in Congress was responsible for her decision. An avowed admirer of Smith, who hung on in office until her defeat in 1972, Snowe evidently found the atmosphere in Congress too toxic for a moderate to function effectively. And this was at a time when there were seventeen women in the Senate and 73 in the House.

That two Maine women with so much in common had such different career trajectories raises many questions for those who care about women and politics. Why could Smith get away with her bold action at a time when she was so isolated by gender? How could she survive as a party member when she acted on her own in denouncing McCarthy—while Snowe felt pushed out? How much does the presence of a critical mass of women in a legislative chamber matter to a woman politician’s effectiveness? How has the amount of money necessary to conduct campaigns in the television age hampered the independence of all politicians? How well does the modern Republican Party function as a home for women politicians (and, I should add, as a vehicle for enacting woman-friendly legislation)?

The two books under review, Women and Congressional Elections, by Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon, and How Women Represent Women, by Tracy L. Osborn, illuminate these and other questions. What is more, they complement one another, because each focuses on a different level of government. Each is based on rigorous empirical research and employs impressive data. Palmer and Simon begin with a historical overview of women in Congress, which makes their book rich in interest, as it details, for example, the important role family connections have played for women politicians, as well as numerous other factors affecting success. But in the end both books are likely to leave readers at least somewhat dissatisfied, since in adhering to the canons of quantitative political science, they exclude factors that might enhance understanding but are not readily quantifiable.

A key issue at the federal level is why, given the fact that women have so much greater access to professional jobs and to resources than ever before, do they still constitute only about seventeen percent of our national legislature, a percentage that shrank slightly in 2010. Palmer and Simon employ the concept of the “woman-friendly district”—one in which a woman is eminently electable—first developed by the political scientist Barbara Burrell, to identify the factors other than incumbency that hinder woman candidates. Having analyzed each of the country’s congressional districts in terms of its partisan make-up, demography, geography, and economic profile, they conclude that many districts—especially those that are southern, rural, and homogeneously Euro-American—are still difficult terrain for women. But they also see promise for the future because the country is changing in a direction that is hopeful for women candidates. “The American public,” they write, “is becoming more urban, more diverse, more educated, and less blue collar, suggesting that opportunities for female candidates will continue to increase.”

While the percentage of women legislators lags well behind that of the general population, many state legislatures have a significantly larger percentage of women than does Congress. In Washington in 1999, for example, the two chambers of the legislature taken together had an almost 41 percent female membership—and 83 percent of the committee chairs in the lower house were women.

In How Women Represent Women, Osborn attempts to parse the influence of gender on the behavior of women legislators. Her data enable her to look separately at pre-election advocacy of women’s issues, sponsorship of bills, and roll-call voting to assess the impact of gender. While not discounting its influence, she concludes that party trumps gender. “When women represent women, they do so as partisans,” she says. Particularly impressive is the way she defines women’s issues as both those pertaining to women irrespective of egalitarian impact, such as funding for breast cancer research, or feminist content, such as equal pay measures, and then analyzes the two separately.

What neither book deals with adequately is the current Republican Party and its hostility to measures supporting women’s equality. Until the time of Ronald Reagan and the party’s capture by the right, Republicans advocated many pro-equality measures, such as the Equal Rights Amendment. Richard Nixon, in fact, signed a number of bills—above all Title IX—of consequence to women. But the great advances in women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s required an activist national state, and that became the prime target of a party increasingly serving the interests of those who fear and detest regulations and taxes. Reagan famously said in his inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and once that philosophy became the idée fixe of Republicans, looking to them to advance the position of women in American society made no sense. A woman candidate could get help from neither the local nor the national party if she didn’t toe the line and oppose an activist state. Increasingly, being prochoice was also anathema. At a time when running for office is prohibitively expensive, no one can realistically aspire to an office above the level of dog-catcher unless she receives help from her party.

The story of Arliss Sturgulewski is instructive. I interviewed her in August 1990, as a member of a team working on a book on women candidates. A well-respected state senator from Anchorage, Alaska, Sturgulewski won the Republican nomination for governor in a primary in the summer of 1990. But she was a moderate, including on environmental issues, and prochoice. These positions made her unacceptable to a rearguard of conservatives in the state’s party. A few hours before the official filing deadline for candidates, her running mate for lieutenant governor defected and joined a third-party ticket headed by former Republican Governor Walter J. Hickel. Sturgulewski finished third in the voting that November. Surely this cautionary tale was not lost on other potential Republican women of the era. Thus when Osborn measures the frequency with which women cross the aisle to vote their gender interests, rather than maintain their partisan loyalty, this seems to be an unrealistic test of gender loyalty. Republican aisle-crossers face punishment and labeling as RINOs—Republican In Name Only. One can only infer that Snowe grew weary of this situation. 



Two other phenomena, neither of which is dealt with in the books under review, deserve mention. First is the ebb and flow of mobilization among women. Mobilization among feminists peaked in the early 1970s. On August 26, 1970, for example, thousands demonstrated on the fiftieth anniversary of woman suffrage. Moreover, during this period, offices in Washington were flooded by phone calls demanding congressional action on feminist legislation, much of which became law, with Title IX as the crown jewel. At the same historical moment, the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment triggered mobilization among conservative women, led by Phyllis Schlafly. Such mobilization creates space for politicians to stick their necks out, and this is one of the reasons legislation gets passed—or does not, in the case of the ERA and the battles about it in nonratifying states. How can one interpret the behavior of women politicians without at least referencing this context? (For more information on women’s mobilizations during the 1970s, see Ethel Klein, Gender Politics: From Consciousness to Mass Politics [1984], and Irene Tinker, ed., Women in Washington: Advocates for Public Policy [1983]. The articles in the Tinker collection, especially, give wonderful detail about the phone calls.)

Secondly, there is ample evidence that women are more reluctant than their male counterparts to run for office, especially national office. Scholars have adduced a host of factors to account for this, ranging from differential socialization to disproportionate responsibility for child care and other household-related matters. Even if a woman does not have children or waits until her children are grown, she is increasingly likely to become responsible for eldercare, as studies show that women still bear a disproportionate share of this as well. In short, like it or not, women are still the primary caregivers in American society, which lacks the panoply of social services available in most advanced industrial societies. This doesn’t mean that a woman can’t run for high office—or take on any other weighty set of responsibilities, for that matter. But it does mean that a woman candidate or office-holder may well have a set of stressors in her life unknown to her male counterparts—which may affect her willingness to go out on a limb to advocate for women’s issues. (See It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office, by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox [2005]).

Following the rise of the Tea Party, one of the most important developments in the political arena in this decade is the increasing prominence of Republican women politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, who are catching up with their male colleagues in their expressions of conservative ideology and willingness to employ extreme rhetoric. Republicans are still a minority of the women in Congress—Democrats outnumber them by more than two to one in both the House and the Senate—but because Palin and Bachmann became media darlings, such women have received extraordinary attention. (One can hardly blame the authors of these books for not analyzing so recent a phenomenon, but it would be almost perverse to ignore the subject in a review.) Feminists are still struggling with how best to respond to high-profile women with retrograde agendas.

Still, there are also encouraging signs of progress for women in public life. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most respected people in the US—and perhaps in the world. Traveling to more countries than any other secretary of state in US history, she has everywhere been an advocate for such basic needs of women in the developing world as safe stoves. She is proof that a woman official can be both very successful at her job and an advocate for other women.                

On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, there is the saga of Senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska. Prochoice, she lost the Republican primary in 2010 to an ultraconservative man, Joe Miller, who had the backing of former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. But Murkowski ran and won as a write-in candidate in the general election, only the second time in American history that a write-in campaign for the US Senate has succeeded. For obvious reasons, her success was important beyond the borders of Alaska. Such a success story, like that of Secretary Clinton, enlarges the possibilities for all women.


Glenna Matthews is an independent scholar living in Laguna Beach. Among her six books are The Rise of Public Woman (1994) and the co-authored Running as a Woman: Gender and Power in American Politics (1995).


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