Despite facing a backlash for voting to impeach former president Donald Trump after the attempted Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) held on to her seat as House Republican Conference chair. GOP lawmakers voted 145 to 61 by secret ballot in favor of Cheney. To many, this signaled a win for the establishment wing of the party. As Cheney has emphasized, Trump “does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.”
But another congresswoman also made headlines last week. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) raised more than $1 million as the House voted to strip her of her committee assignments. The freshman representative who has expressed support for the extremist ideology QAnon has become one of the main faces of the Trump faction of the GOP. “The party is his,” Greene said of Trump at a recent news conference. “It doesn’t belong to anybody else.”
With little legislative power as the minority party in Congress, messaging is central to the GOP’s political strategy. As the party works to brand itself in this post-Trump era, my research tells us why we’ll probably continue to see women front and center.
GOP women aren’t gender-blind partisans
In my research, I find that Republican congresswomen work strategically as partisan women. Far from being gender-blind partisans, they often use gendered rhetoric that aligns with the GOP’s ideological positions and electoral goals.
In my analysis of House floor speeches, I find that Republican women have increasingly engaged in gendered rhetoric that positions them in opposition to Democratic women and in line with their party. Recent examples of this can be found in the words of Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
On the campaign trail, Mace declared herself part of a “Conservative Squad,” in direct opposition to the four prominent Democratic women known as “The Squad.” In a fundraising email last week, Mace attacked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and called herself “a trailblazing, fiscally conservative woman — exactly the kind of woman that scares Nancy Pelosi and the radical left.” In drawing distinctions between herself and top Democratic women, Mace simultaneously combats gender stereotypes that could paint her as liberal and defends the GOP against accusations that it is “anti-woman.”
Similarly, in a recent ad, Boebert used a racial dog whistle and her White womanhood to emphasize her conservative credentials. Describing why she carries a loaded handgun to work, Boebert said, “D.C. is one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in our country. Homicide rates and violent crimes are skyrocketing here. … As a 5-foot-tall, 100-pound woman, I choose to protect myself legally.”
Several factors have made this rhetoric more common in recent years. First, we’ve seen the election of more conservative women to Congress. Republican congresswomen used to be significantly more moderate than the men in their party. No longer.
Second, Republican and Democratic congresswomen have moved further apart ideologically. Women have not been an exception to the growing polarization we’ve seen between the two parties.
Finally, an increasingly gendered political landscape gives Republican women increasing incentives to emphasize gender (and race). Over the past several years, Democratic women have significantly outnumbered Republican women in Congress. Democrats and others have claimed that there’s a Republican “war on women,” and women have become increasingly visible and powerful in the Democratic Party. Since the 1980s, Republicans have had a disadvantage among female voters generally, and polls leading into recent elections showed that even White suburban women might be turning away from Trump. In response to these trends, Republicans have attempted to mobilize female voters mainly through gendered messaging tactics.
Republican women as party messengers
The Republican Conference is the messaging vehicle of the House GOP, where party leaders develop and disseminate cohesive messages. Compared with other leadership positions, women have been well represented here. Since 1995, Republicans have always had a woman as conference chair or vice chair.
That’s in part because party leaders recognize the political benefits of women’s visibility. In my book, I use interview data from the Center for American Women and Politics to show how Republican congresswomen have worked together to frame women’s representation as critical to the GOP’s overall success. As Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) argues, “Republican women are majority makers.” This emphasis on women as electorally valuable gives male leadership an incentive to invest in the image that they are including women.
Conference leaders have also helped to amplify the voices of other women in the party. For rank-and-file Republican women, highlighting their gender works in two ways. First, it advances the party’s interests, defending it against Democratic attacks as anti-woman and reaching out to female voters. Second, it works in their individual interests, bringing them visibility as party messengers.
The vote to keep Cheney as conference chair was certainly about more than just her gender. However, ousting the only woman in Republican leadership — without another woman to replace her — probably seemed like a bad move to many members. That’s also why we’ll probably continue to see women as some of the leading voices in the party.
The fight for the future of the party
The record number of Republican women serving in Congress are more racially and ideologically diverse than in previous years. It’s notable that four of the five total Republican women of color voted with House Democrats to either impeach Trump or remove Greene from her committees.
At the same time, the 117th Congress has more women in the right-wing Freedom Caucus than ever before. At least five Republican congresswomen, including Greene, have joined its ranks. The stark divisions that exist generally within the House GOP exist among the women, too.
With minority-party status in Congress and a presidency to win, Republicans from each faction are testing party messages — and messengers. Don’t be surprised if you see more women in the spotlight.
Catherine Wineinger (@cnwineinger) is an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University. Her book “Gendering the GOP: Intraparty Politics and Republican Women’s Representation in Congress” is under contract with Oxford University Press.