But none have climbed further up the Republican leadership ladder. What might Cheney’s removal and Stefanik’s rise tell us about Republican women’s leadership pathways in this post-Trump era? My research on GOP women’s congressional representation offers some insights.
A glass ceiling for House GOP women
While congressional Republicans often elect women to serve in conference leadership, they haven’t yet done so for the top positions of Republican whip, Republican leader, or speaker of the House. This glass ceiling has remained intact for several reasons.
First, compared with Republican men, many women in the party lack seniority. Only three Republican women in the House today entered Congress before 2011 (Kay Granger of Texas, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, and Virginia Foxx of North Carolina). Most were elected in the 2020 cycle. This is in part because women face institutional and electoral challenges, research finds: Women work harder to stay in office; are more likely to face general and primary election challengers; and often retire before attaining a level of seniority that’s helpful for winning party leadership roles.
But seniority isn’t the only issue. Among their fellow Republicans, female candidates have to work hard to overcome gender stereotypes and prove their conservative credentials. Women running for House GOP leadership spots face many of these same hurdles. In a party that caters to White Christian voters, prioritizes “masculine” policy issues and emphasizes traditional gender roles and “family values,” women confront specific gender norms. One way women (including former conference chairs McMorris Rodgers and Cheney) have navigated all this is by emphasizing their identities as mothers along with their conservative policy stances.
Finally, male Republican leaders are still the party’s gatekeepers. My research shows that party leaders actively seek out and support women for messaging roles such as conference chair, but rarely go beyond that. As former congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in 2017, “Some of these guys, they just see themselves in those [top leadership] positions and they want it for themselves. And they think if it goes to a woman they will never be able to grab it again.”
What Cheney’s removal means for the party
Cheney is a staunch conservative and a loyal partisan. She voted with Trump 92.9 percent of the time and has an 80 percent lifetime score from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Her messaging as conference chair has aligned with the Republican Party’s decades-long strategy of mobilizing White voters by tapping into racial fears — including echoing Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But in consistently condemning Trump’s false claims about a stolen election and incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Cheney has positioned herself as the former president’s opponent. Stefanik has a more moderate voting record; she voted with Trump 77.7 percent of the time and has a lifetime Heritage Foundation score of 48 percent. But being loyal to Trump during both impeachments and more generally since the election earned her Trump’s “COMPLETE and TOTAL endorsement for GOP Conference Chair.”
Clearly, many House Republicans believe Cheney’s positions would hurt them in the next election, suggesting that they believe their voters are more loyal to Trump than to conservative ideology.
What does this mean for Republican women in Congress?
On one hand, a Trumpier Republican Party will likely continue the pattern in which far fewer GOP women than Democratic women hold office, in proportion to their party’s numbers in Congress. While a record number of Republican women ran for office in 2020, women still only made up 21.3 percent of all House Republican candidates — as compared with 37.8 percent of House Democratic candidates. And many of the GOP women who won this cycle — including the 11 women who flipped House seats held by Democrats — will likely face competitive races in upcoming general elections.
On the other hand, women could find new pathways into leadership. A party that is less concerned about ideological credentials could result in very different gender dynamics in Republican conference elections. Appealing to Trump supporters — and to Trump himself — may matter more than voting records or party leaders’ support.
Stefanik’s biggest challenge as conference chair will be unifying various factions of her party. Nevertheless, she has embraced Trumpian rhetoric. In a letter to her colleagues last week, Stefanik laid out her vision for the House GOP. “If we get our message out, we will win and save America,” Stefanik wrote — a nod to the “save America” language often used by Trump and his supporters.
Stefanik didn’t come out of nowhere. Even before Trump’s presidency, she was considered a rising Republican star — in part because she could reach young voters and was committed to diversifying the party. But as the GOP’s strategy shifted, so did her own strategy. Whether Stefanik’s devotion to Trump is enough to break glass ceilings in a transforming Republican Party remains to be seen.
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.