Every woman in Congress has a story about being ignored by men. For Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), that story is about Donald H. Rumsfeld.
It was May 7, 2004, nine days after CBS News aired photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating naked and bloodied Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. On Capitol Hill, where then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was called to answer for the misconduct, Collins asked in a hearing whether he regretted not disclosing and condemning the crimes upfront.
Rumsfeld fired back, suggesting Collins misunderstood the workings of the Pentagon. So she pressed him again: Why had the Pentagon focused on delaying CBS’s airing of the photographs instead of Rumsfeld himself condemning the abuse?
By now visibly angry, Rumsfeld did what in 2004 lacked a precise term: He “mansplained” the incident to her until the time was up.
“It angered me that he blew off what I thought was a very central, legitimate question,” Collins said in a recent interview. “I didn’t think my question was unfair. I remember he would not look at me when I was asking the question. And I felt that indicated his total lack of respect.”
Remley Johnson, Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, said the former defense secretary had no comment.
But Johnson did. “If you ask me, [Collins] seems to flatter herself by suggesting that her impressions from all those years ago and largely imagined, could be related to anything other than her performance as a legislator,” she said in an email.
Respect is something Republican women are fiercely debating after Donald Trump — who some critics have branded a misogynist — officially accepted the GOP presidential nomination in Cleveland last month. The business mogul has repeatedly described women he dislikes (Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, Arianna Huffington and Bette Midler among them) as “slobs,” “dogs” and “grotesque.”
In more than a dozen interviews, Republican women generally shrugged their shoulders at Trump’s comments. And polling shows the race for women voters is very close, though Trump has a large lead with men.
“Many of us wish he had not said some things,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) recently. “My hope is that we’re going to see a change of tone and a change of demeanor.”
“But,” she added, “when you’ve worked like I have in male-dominated environments for years, you many times push comments like that aside.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia has met with Trump and said she doesn’t think he’s a misogynist. But she told the business executive that “the intensity with which women are going to support you is going to be influenced by the way you talk about women and address their issues.”
“I don’t think it’s the first time he’s ever heard it,” Capito said. “And I’m not sure how great an impact it made.”
Trump’s candidacy only deepens the difficulties for Republican women in Washington, whether in Congress, the lobbying world or political campaigns. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republican women have struggled to make lasting gains in leadership positions over the past decade.
In Congress, Republicans can boast only two additional female lawmakers and virtually no other women in high-ranking leadership roles compared with 2004, when Collins confronted Rumsfeld. Just one woman serves among the House’s top four leadership positions, and no Republican woman holds a top-ranking leadership role in the Senate. And the presidential stage is not much better: Carly Fiorina was the lone GOP female White House hopeful this cycle in a group of 16 men. Among the 31 Republican governors, only three are women.
The picture is even bleaker given the rapid rise of women at nearly all levels of Democratic politics.
Today, the political left is embodied by women, with more than a dozen ranking Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as figures such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), the party’s progressive heroine, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the former House speaker, and Hillary Clinton, the party’s presidential nominee, serving as potent symbols for females in the party. If Democrats take both the White House and Congress in November, women would fill a larger number of positions in their top ranks.
Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University at Camden, has identified multiple hurdles for Republican women in politics that don’t exist for their Democratic peers. The two most troublesome, she said, are the purging of moderate Republicans through primaries and a less egalitarian party culture.
“The values are about individual rather than group-based concerns,” Shames said of Republicans. “There’s the idea that, if women are not in some place where they should be, they’re not working hard enough. … This doesn’t necessarily impede women from running for office, but it means fewer efforts to recruit, train and cultivate them.”
“There is a story that women are gaining ground in Congress, but it’s not entirely true,” she said. “If we are making progress, it’s only because of Democratic women.”
Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan.), who serves as vice chair of the Republican Conference, recalled a 2011 phone call among House Republicans in which the issue of women in leadership was discussed: “There was a female on the call who said, ‘We really need more women to be represented, to be out in front and carrying some of these bills.’ And [then-House Speaker John A.] Boehner said, ‘Well, if the ladies want to have some leadership role, then they need to start running for leadership positions.’ … We don’t run for them. I think that’s what the speaker was saying at that time: ‘Nothing is going to be given to you because you’re a female. If you’re going to lead, then step up and lead.'”
That dearth of Republican women in powerful jobs means that those who succeed are sometimes viewed as tokens, elevated to burnish the party’s image even if their credentials are sterling.
It happens all over Washington. Michele Davis, a former aide to Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and two-time assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, said she was described as a token in the early days of the George W. Bush administration.
The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes questioned the administration’s “insistence on women or minorities in high positions” in a 2001 piece and suggested the pursuit of diversity results in hires who are less qualified. Davis, then recently installed at the Treasury Department, was one of several women officials he mentioned by name.
“I called him and I was like, ‘I’m incredibly offended. You know me. You know my background. You know I know this subject matter,'” said Davis, now global head of corporate affairs at Morgan Stanley. “He was hugely apologetic on the phone. But it was a private apology. The piece was already out there.”
Barnes, now the Standard’s executive editor, acknowledged in an email that he mentioned Davis, but said there was nothing derogatory about her in his piece.
“Just to be clear, I did not write that Michele Davis had been appointed over a more qualified male,” he wrote.
“[Davis’s] job was a difficult one, since her boss, [former Treasury Secretary] Paul O’Neill, was not well-liked at the White House. She did very well in that job. I did not criticize her in any way.”
Many of the dozen Republican women interviewed for this report said disrespect will not disappear until GOP women increase their hold on official levers of power: high-ranking political appointments, committee chairmanships, elected roles.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Congress’s longest serving Republican woman, was the only female GOP chair for about two years when she led the House Foreign Affairs Committee, leapfrogging more senior men to get there. In a recent interview, she called the rule limiting Republican committee leaders to six years as chair or ranking member “crazy.”
“You don’t set the agenda, you don’t move bills [as a ranking member],” she said. “I think it’s unfair. … We need to look at those rules and see what we could do. Our GOP needs to do better.”
Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), who leads the House Administration Committee as the chamber’s only female chair, disagreed.
“If I hear anything on the other side of the aisle, it’s grumbling — grumbling that they can’t move up,” she said, referring to Democrats’ use of seniority for promotions. “In my opinion, politics is absolutely the last place seniority should be a determining factor.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) spokeswoman declined to comment on chairmanship term limits but noted there are five women in elected leadership positions in the House.
“The female members in the House Republican conference are strong, intelligent leaders who are helping drive our agenda. Speaker Ryan looks to these lawmakers for counsel and advice,” AshLee Strong wrote in an email.
The numbers paint a clear picture of GOP women’s relatively weak position.
In Congress, the number of Democratic women spiked in the early 1990s and has dramatically outpaced Republicans ever since. (Today, the ratio of Democrat to Republican female lawmakers is about 3 to 1.) In addition to their primary face in leadership, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), GOP women lead only two standing committees between the two chambers, including Miller’s panel, whose chairman is appointed by the speaker.
Given this contrast, male GOP leaders often seem eager to showcase their female counterparts, particularly on subjects such as abortion, health care and the Zika virus.
“I was [treated differently] right away, even when I was running,” Rep. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) said, noting that she received an immediate place at the leadership table when she arrived in the House. “I do know they were looking for someone who was maybe a little bit younger, that was a woman, that could articulate some Republican values.”
Sen. Deb Fischer teared up while discussing the positive attention she receives from constituents — including children — as the first female senator from Nebraska. But she said she never talks about being a woman in politics.
“I don’t think it’s relevant, but it seems to be here [in Washington],” she said, bristling at being identified as a female senator. “I don’t know if it’s because the media focuses on it or if the women focus on it. I’ve kind of refused to. I don’t think as women senators we always do ourselves favors by trying [to] separate and be a group.”
Katie Walsh, the 31-year-old chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, is aware she might be perceived as a token — though she said she and her boss, Reince Priebus, “never had that conversation.”
“I’m in rooms sometimes where people say, ‘Of course. The party had trouble with women in 2012, they lost young single women, and they needed to put a woman’s face on the party to make it look like they were trying,’” said Walsh, the youngest person ever to hold her position.
“I don’t think that’s why [Priebus] put me in the job. But I would also say that I think there are a lot of men in our party that really value and actually hear something better from a woman than they do from a man.”
Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, defended the GOP’s efforts to diversify its ranks.
“I have made it a priority to recruit and elect candidates with diverse backgrounds, including women, and I am proud of our success in doing so,” Walden said in a statement.
But with Trump on the GOP ticket, it’s easy to think of 2016 as a difficult year for Republican women trying to expand their influence.
“There is not a ‘Welcome to the GOP’ kind of vibe,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“If you’re a young female Hispanic, I can’t imagine that you would want to belong to the GOP,” she said. “I feel like we have a lot to worry about if we want to be a major party at the national level again.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.