A woman’s place is in a House Committee Chair

Congress is a noble institution dedicated to consider oversight and implementation of laws created on behalf of we the people. Though lately given to partisan squabbles, Congress means to “come together.” Apart from the voting and speaking seen daily on the floor of each chamber, and the relentless constituent services provided in state offices, the most substantive work done in each two-year session takes place in the influential committees to which each new member is assigned by his or her respective political parties. 

Although they came relatively late to the floor, beginning with Jeanette Rankin in 1917, women leaders have been repeatedly elected into the most exclusive club in politics. 

Rankin, a Montana Republican, served two years and then waited patiently 22 years until she was again elected.

In January, the Senate will have 20 female members — the highest number of women senators to ever sit in the same session. Just writing that sentence makes my heart dance. There are only 100 slots to go around (at least until Texas succeeds in seceding), and though 20 percent sounds small proportionately, to women who are historically patient, it still feels like real progress.   

For over 300 years, the senatorial upper chamber  (a.k.a the world’s greatest deliberative body) has been more decorous and decorated in American government, but, because congressmen vastly outnumber their friends with flags on the other side of the U.S. Capitol, the legislative lower body is actually the stronger sibling in our bicameral system of democracy. 

The House of Representatives, made up of one delegate for every voting district in the country, has 435 seats. Despite the fact that two-thirdsof them are white males, a record 78 congresswomen (roughly 17 percent) are currently slated for swearing in to the 113th Congress — twice as many Democrats as Republicans. (The ratio might fluctuate slightly between elections — one seat held by a reelected male member has already vacated and could likely be filled by a woman.)

Just getting elected to a woman’s place in the House used to be quite a feat, but in the last decade we’ve seen more and more wondrous women from both parties promoted to positions of power. The Democrats have even had a woman Speaker of the House.

The party with the most members in Congress does not just get the Speaker chair, however, it also runs 100 percent of the powerful congressional committees. In the Senate, gavels will again be leveled by several well-manicured Democrats answering to ‘Madam Chairwoman’ (The majority leader has not yet announced the new assignments, but keep an eye on Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer and Mary Landrieu). 

Disappointingly, progress took a holiday across the Capitol lawn. Despite over 20 female legislators to select from, and a hearty respect for tokenism in the wake of losses in women’s votes, the GOP leadership assigned every single significant gavel to legislators who had a Y chromosome. The only two chairmanships left to assign are the politically thankless House Ethics Committee chair and the administratively unrewarding House Administration Committee gavel. 

Jeanette Rankin might tell her successful successors to have patience but I’m pretty sure GOP women voters are losing theirs.

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Melinda Henneberger · November 27, 2012