How The GOP Lost Its Women

This will be a pretty long post with some of my thoughts about the decline and fall of the female elected Republican, which I've been jabbering about for several years now and obsessively documenting during the 2010 election cycle. These thoughts are based on my reporting, research, and listening to lots of people who follow this stuff.

For starters, let me explain the two measures I like to look at, when assessing the gender makeup of a particular set of elected officials. First is what I call the "incumbent rate," which is simply what percentage of the current officeholders are women. The second measure I call the "replacement rate," and it's the percentage of the newly elected officeholders who are women.

For example, in the current 111th Congress, 56 of 256 Democratic House members are women, for a 22% incumbency rate. Those 256 Democrats include 32 freshmen elected in November 2008, of whom 8 were women, for a 25% replacement rate.

One reason it's important to look at both measures is because if you're dealing with a body that starts out 95%+ male -- say, the US House in 1975 -- and those incumbents tend to almost all run for, and win, re-election over and over again, that low turnover makes it very hard to push up the incumbent rate except very incrementally. The replacement rate can give a glimpse of whether there's some change happening in the way women are rising in the ranks when opportunities arise.

When we go back to that mid-70's starting line, there were enormous barriers to women advancing politically, in both parties. There was a very sexist, Mad Men kind of culture throughout the existing political structures -- national ones as well as the many local and regional ones. Men interested in party politics had opportunities to do substantive work, on campaigns and in political offices, and to network and impress people and find patrons and build goodwill and all of that sort of thing. Women were put at tables stuffing envelopes, or sorting the old voter-registration cards, or answering phones.

This was true of both parties, and as a result both parties had roughly equally tiny incumbent rates -- a fact that changed little through the 1980s, largely because of the turnover issue I mentioned above. So, at the start of the 1990s, both parties had incumbent rates in the US House of roughly 6%-7%. (Each party also had a single female Senator.)

But from time to time come fairly large overhauls in the congressional delegations, and there were back-to-back such election cycles in 1992 and 1994.

In 1992, because of redistricting -- heightened by court requirements to create majority-black districts -- a whole bunch of sitting (predominantly male) congressmen got written out of the chamber, and a whole bunch of new challengers got new, unclaimed seats, or significantly redrawn seats, to go after.

Then in 1994, the 'Gingrich Revolution' saw a large host of (again, predominantly male) Democrats retire or get defeated, and a huge batch of new Republicans charge in. But as it happened, just 7 of the 73 Republican freshmen in 1995 were women -- a replacement rate under 10%.

When the dust settled, the two parties were suddenly in completely different places from each other.

From 1990 to 1995, Democrats had (not of their own choice) gone from a caucus of 245 men and 16 women, to 173 men and 31 women -- raising their incumbent rate to 15%. And, most of the women were among the more recently elected members, meaning that they were going to be there for some time to come.

Over the same period, Republicans had gone from 161 men and 13 women, to 213 men and 17 women. Their incument rate was still just 7% -- and they now had dozens of young men just starting their congressional tenure.

For the next decade, both parties appeared to be adding more women equally slowly -- by 2004 Democrats had raised their incumbent rate from 15% to 19%, and Republicans from 7% to 9%. So it seemed as though very little had changed in 30 years, other than the '92-'94 anomolies.

But I would argue that the '92-'94 anomolies accelerated an already-begun culture change in Democratic party structures -- while on the other side, it stunted any such beginnings of change.

Although the total incumbent rate didn't move much, trom 1995 to 2004 Democrats in the House actually had a replacement rate of 22% -- and 27% from the '04 through '08 elections. The GOP has had a pretty steady replacement rate of 12% over that entire period.

And the really brutally compelling data lies in the state legislatures -- largely unnoticed, because the total gender breakdown of state legislators has barely changed since the mid-90's, after creeping up for the previous 20-25 years. But that's because since then, the incumbent rate among Republican state legislators has declined at roughly the same rate it has increased among Democrats. In 2009, 31% of all Democratic state legislators are women; just 16% of Republicans are.

Since 1995, the number of women Democratic state senators in the country has risen 61%, from 190 to 306; for state representatives, the number is up 47%, from 653 to 961. (I rely here, as in many cases, on research from the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.)

For Republicans, the corresponding numbers have declined 15% and 25%; from 137 to 117 in senates, and from 536 to 399 in houses.

It's hard to overstate the importance of this: of the 17 current Republican women in the US House, 11 previously served in their state legislatures. Another 3 served in some other local elected office.

I believe that during the 1980s and early 1990s, women were already beginning to seriously infiltrate the existing Democratic culture, in ways that Republican women were not. For example -- and I don't have data to support this -- I suspect that what appeared to be equal gains in state legislatures were not equal at all. Democrats were getting ambitious, professional women who wanted to make politics a career, which might involve moving their families to DC. Republicans were getting housewives, active in church groups where Moral Majority and Christian Coalition were recruiting candidates, who saw it as their latest community-service effort.

In any event, after the '92-'94 changes, to just make a sweeping, general observation, there were significant enough women's caucuses among Democratic groups (including enough who had gotten there on their own, and who had long careers in front of them), to make it impossible to maintain the same Mad Men culture. Not that it changed overnight, but it's very clearly been changing.

After the same changes, however, the GOP was as much of a boys' club as it ever had been -- if not more so, because A) so many of the boys were just starting their own tenure, and B) thanks to their majorities the boys had even more power to wield, and thus to keep things exactly as they liked it.

All of which gets us to 2010. The Democrats' incumbent and replacement rates, as I mentioned, have continued to rise (albeit slowly); Republicans' rates are in decline, for both measures. 

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