The XX Factor

With Republicans in Charge, Women Are Losing Leadership Positions in the Senate

Susan Collins is one of two female committee chairs in the Senate. Under Democrats, women held nine of those chairs.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, Republicans, anxious to kill off the “war on women” narrative, appointed a woman to give the official response to the State of the Union address. But while Sen. Joni Ernst got to make a speech on TV, don’t look for her to be heading up any Senate committees this year. As the New York Times reports, the Republican takeover of the Senate means that far fewer women will be in powerful committee chair positions.

Under Democrats, women held nine committee chairs and under Republicans, they will only have two. The fact that women are losing so many leadership positions is even more remarkable in light of the fact that there are more women in Congress than ever. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times explains:

The reason is largely because Congress is a culture where power is tied tightly with seniority, and committee chairmanships do not go to junior members. More than two-thirds of female lawmakers are Democrats, and Democratic women, who overall were elected earlier and in larger numbers than their Republican counterparts, have more longevity. When Democrats lost control, women lost top jobs.

It may not be overt discrimination, but this shift does reflect a major difference in the parties when it comes to attitudes about women. As I noted back in November, Democrats, notably through the Emily’s List PAC, have been actively investing in women for decades now by recruiting and aggressively funding them. Republicans simply haven’t. The SBA List was meant to be a conservative competitor to Emily’s List, except supporting anti-choice instead of pro-choice women. But the group supports men as well as women, specifically focusing on anti-choice men running against pro-choice women. In a sense, the group is as focused on getting rid of female politicians they don’t like as building up female politicians they do like. 

It’s that lack of organized effort to really push women into leadership roles that means that the gender ratio of the two parties will likely remain lopsided for a long time. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway rejected the idea that the loss of female leadership is really that big a deal, telling the New York Times, “The point that you had nine female Democratic senators chairing committees last cycle was either soundly rejected by voters, or it didn’t matter.” But Republican Sen. John Cornyn disagrees with Conway’s indifferent stance. “I think it helps to have a Senate leadership that looks more like the rest of America,” he told the New York Times. But without major investment in that ideal, the overwhelming maleness (not to mention whiteness) of the Republican leadership will continue.