New England has contributed a number of important centrist Republican women to Congress – Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Rep. Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut to name just three. This breed of Republican women, however, is becoming an endangered species. So argues our guest contributor today, Professor Laurel Elder of Hartwick College, located in upstate New York. She is the author, with Steven Greene at North Carolina State University, of The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family as well as numerous academic articles on women’s under-representation in U.S. political institutions.
For those interested in seeing women one day reach parity with men in elected office, recent trends in New England state legislatures should be watched closely and with considerable concern.
The good news is that Democratic women are doing very well. Over the past three decades, Democratic women have steadily increased their representation in New England state legislatures. Today, women form a sizable block among Democratic legislators in all New England states. In fact, women are 46 percent of Democratic state legislators in New Hampshire and 49 percent of state legislators in Vermont.
The strong pipeline of Democratic women is a major reason New Hampshire recently made history by sending the first-ever, all female congressional delegation to Washington DC. It is true that Vermont remains one of only three states in the country to never send a woman to Congress. However, when a Congressional opening does occur in Vermont, there will be many qualified Democratic women ready to run.
The trends for Republican women, however, are troubling. The fact that two of the U.S. Senators from New England are Republican women—and in fact the only Republicans in the U.S. Congress from New England are women—gives the initial impression that Republican women are thriving in, and perhaps uniquely suited to represent New England.
Yet, when we look deeper, at the representation of Republican women in state legislatures, the picture that emerges is concerning. There are fewer Republican women serving in New England state legislatures today than three decades ago. Even more troubling, women now form a smaller share of Republican legislators in New England today than they did in 1981. In other words, while women were making tremendous strides in terms of education and occupation across the last three decades, Republican state legislators in New England were becoming an even more male-dominated group.
The Republican party’s trouble with women seems to be connected to the party’s growing conservatism. The representation of Republican women in New England started to decline in the early 1990s as the party moved in a rightwards direction. In other words, the more conservative nature of the Republican party appears to have negative consequences for its ability to recruit, support, and elect women to office.
The withering of Republican women in New England holds potentially negative consequences for the Republican party in New England and nationally. Today, Republican women state legislators only have a small—and shrinking—voice in their party as states tackle issues such as minimum wage, reproductive rights, and health care, issues that affect all Americans but disproportionately women and mothers.
The declining numbers of Republican women in state legislators also constrains the opportunities for Republican women in higher level offices. Currently only 4 out of the 20 women in the U.S. Senate are Republicans, and only 19 of the 79 women in the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans. As a recent article in The Boston Globe reported, despite concerted efforts, the Republican party is struggling to recruit women to run for Congress this fall and will likely have fewer women candidates in 2014 than it did in 2012.
The withering of Republican women in Congress is a concern as Republican women, especially the Republican women Senators from New England, have played a distinctive role in shaping their party’s policies and finding solutions to important national issues, such as the government shut down last fall. Moreover, Republican women have played a crucial role in helping to moderate the image of their party. The withering of Republican women in New England will leave the party less able to appeal to women voters and counter accusations that Republicans are launching a “War against women.”