A Net Loss for Women in Politics

Dahlia, you ask an excellent question. As American University professor Jennifer Lawless points out on the XX Factor blog today, this was most decidedly not a historic year for women. In fact, it’s the first time in 30 years that Americans have seen a net loss in the total number of women in political office. As Lawless explains, Democratic women lost a lot of seats, and Republican women—despite all the hype —did not gain enough seats to make up the difference. Hence, we have backslid in the year of the woman.

Another less than promising trend:  For all of the love the Republican Party lavished on its women, the GOP did not seem to actually give them any leadership positions. Some Republicans declared this morning that they want to run for House leadership positions, and so far, there are no women among them.  When Republican Mike Pence retired from his position, a few women were mentioned to replace him: Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, who is the only woman in leadership now but also eight months pregnant. But none of them are showing up on the latest lists. Which means that maybe what this election adds up to for women is a lot of Christine O’Donnell jokes and not much else.

But I don’t really believe that. This election has completely scrambled ideas of how women—both voters and candidates—behave in politics. For one thing, women voted nearly as much for Republicans as for Democrats (in 2008 the split was 56-42 in favor of Democrats). Yes, this was a Republican anti-incumbent year. But still, this is the first time that’s happened, and it suggests that the shift in sympathies and alliances happening among American women are not captured by a temporary infatuation with a handful of photogenic Mama Grizzlies. 

As for the candidates —Emily and I wrote about the newly expanded playlist for female candidates. Now, the question is which ones of them worked. The analogy that pops into my head is, I’m sorry to say, Sex and the City. Sarah Palin is Carrie, directing the action; her Samanthas lost, while her Mirandas  won. The rules were the same as they are for dating: You can’t show too much crazy. Nikki Haley, for example, could have gone either way, with the affair allegations and the Tea Party extremism. But in her demeanor she is so solidly a Miranda that crazy did not stick to her. Ditto for Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Mary Fallin in Oklahoma. Krystal Ball, she of red dildo fame, got trounced.  The ones who did not expose themselves in public are the ones who won.

The real question for the future is, who will make the headlines? No more Nancy Pelosi, no more Christine O’Donnell. The most prominent female Democrat is who? Barbara Boxer? And Nikki Haley is different and photogenic and all but talks like an accountant. Which leaves us, sigh, Sarah Palin on skis.