The XX Factor

Is It Really a Great Year for Women in Politics?

You could get the impression from the news coverage of the last few months that 2010 signifies remarkable progress for women in politics – especially Republican women.  Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell won competitive primaries for the GOP nomination in their races.  And since those primary victories, they have been in the news – a lot.  But before we conclude that it is the dawn of a new era for women in politics, there are a few facts to consider.

First, Whitman, Fiorina, Angle, and O’Donnell represent only a small fraction of the total number of candidates seeking positions of political power.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, women candidates are competing for fewer than one-third of the 435 seats at stake.  Only 14 women will appear on the ballot for the U.S. Senate races across the country (although Lisa Murkowski is waging a sophisticated write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Alaska).  From the outset, therefore, it is vital to recognize the basic fact that most congressional candidates are men.  Even with the record number of women who entered races this election cycle, substantial (or even incremental) gains for women’s numeric representation are virtually impossible.

Second, many of these women will not win.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they’re women; it has a lot to do with the fact than nearly half of them are challenging incumbents.  Granted, this election cycle will probably see a lower-than-usual incumbency advantage.  But the overwhelming majority of incumbents – most of whom are men – will still win tonight.

Third, Democrats and Republicans do not shoulder an equal burden for the dearth of women in politics.  In fact, 77 percent of the women in the U.S. House and Senate are Democrats.  Thus, with the defeat of only a handful of Democratic women, we could see a net loss in the number of women serving in Congress for the first time in 30 years.

The only way to compensate for this loss – especially in an anti-Democratic, anti-incumbency year – is with substantial increases of women in the House and Senate on the Republican side of the aisle.  Yet the National Republican Congressional Committee is running women in only three of the 30 races that will likely switch party control from the Democrats back to the Republicans.  Moreover, quite a few Republican women are running in districts and states where the GOP is simply not very competitive.  Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Linda McMahon in Connecticut are just two examples of female Republican nominees who are far more conservative than their state’s voters.  This is not a recipe for easy victory.

Put simply, we are still far from any semblance of gender parity in U.S. politics.  And even if some notable women defeat their opponents, it is likely that at least 83 percent of the seats in the U.S. House and Senate will continue to be occupied by men.

Photograph of Meg Whitman by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.