Did they “2” it again? Only if they were Democrats.
As the 113th Congress was sworn in many were pleased about the increased numbers of women in both houses. This was also true for the state legislatures, though not for all of them. While more women are welcome, it’s important to understand that this progress is one-sided, or more accurately, one-partied. In the 2012 election, Democratic women got a big boost. Republican women didn’t.
In January of 2013, women were 29 percent of the Democrats and 9 percent of the Republicans in both houses of Congress. Whereas women increased their presence in the Democratic Caucus from last year, they decreased their presence in the Republican Conference in both numbers and percentages.
After the 2012 election, the number of women Republicans elected to Congress went down twenty percent, from 24 to 20 in the House and from 5 to 4 in the Senate. The number of women Democrats increased by ten and twenty percent respectively, from 53 to 58 in the House and 13 to 16 in the Senate.
Something similar happened in the state legislatures. Republican women decreased their presence by 7 to 8 percent and the Democratic women increased theirs by 3 to 10 percent. As of January, 2013, women are 37 percent of all Democratic state house members and 28 percent of Democratic state senators. They are only 18 and 13 percent, respectively, of their Republican counterparts.
Two factors account for this: Women candidates do well in election years that end in “2.” Women candidates win when the Democrats win. What’s magical about “2″ years is that the first legislative contests after the decennial reapportionment are held in those years. New districts create new opportunities. More seats are open — i.e. have no incumbent — in “2″ years than in others, and even incumbents must appeal to new constituents within their new district lines.
This has been a factor only since the 1960s when the Supreme Court ruled that legislative districts had to be roughly equal in population. Until compelled to do so, many states did not change their legislative district lines, or even those of their Congressional districts. The members of the state legislatures who were charged with that duty liked to keep things as they were.
The modern women’s movement also emerged in the 1960s, and by 1972 public awareness was growing about the dismal lack of women in public office. Consciousness was raised by Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for President that year, even though she insisted that she was not running as the women’s candidate. The impact of the 1972 redistricting and the feminist movement could be seen in the 18.8 percent increase in the number of women sworn in as state legislators in 1973. The numbers were still tiny, but they continued to rise steeply for the next twenty years.
Women could respond so fast to the opportunities offered by the 1972 redistricting because they hadn’t been out of politics in the previous 50 years, just out of sight. Not only were women a significant majority of campaign workers, but organizations like the League of Women Voters had been training them to do legislative work for decades and implanting many with the idea that they could do it better inside the legislature.
In 1992, the number of women elected to Congress took a great leap upward, from 29 to 47 in the House and from 2 to 7 in the Senate. After crawling from two to six percent during the previous two decades, women were ten percent of the 103rd Congress.
Once again, redistricting created opportunity, but only where women were ready to take advantage of it. In the previous twenty years, women had gone from five to twenty-one percent of state legislators, a major source of Congressional candidates. The states which had elected women to the state legislatures in larger numbers began to elect them to Congress.
This increase was not bipartisan. The 1992 election brought a big increase in the number of Democratic women, but only a small one for Republicans. In the 1980s women had been a greater portion of Republican than Democratic members of Congress. The “party gap” this created in Congress had emerged a decade earlier in the state legislatures. In 1981, women were about 12 percent of both the Republican and Democratic state legislators. Their proportion among the Democrats rose slowly but steadily to over 31 percent in 2009. Among Republican state legislators the proportion of women rose more slowly, flattened out in the mid-1990s, and fell as the new century began. There are fewer Republican women serving in the state legislatures in 2013 than in 2000. There are ten percent more Democratic women.
The number of women state legislators peaked at 1,809 before the 2010 elections. When the voters favored the Republicans that year they reduced women’s presence. Many more Democratic women lost their seats than Republican women won theirs. They have not yet caught up.
There are many reasons why Republican women are less likely than Democratic women to become legislators. Some have to do with the voters; some with how each party recruits (or doesn’t recruit) its candidates. The bottom line is that hallelujahs for the greater number of women in the 113th Congress are coming a bit too early.
The Republicans elected to the state legislatures in 2010 were able to draw districts which will favor Republican candidates for the next decade. The type of voters who vote in the midterm elections are more likely to favor Republicans. That means that women’s progress into elected office will stall unless the Republican Party decides to practice a little affirmative action, or the voters swing heavily to the Democrats.