The 2020 elections more than doubled the number of Republican women in the U.S. House, from 13 to 31, and increased the number of Republican women in state legislatures. The increase was so notable that CBS News called 2020 the “Year of the Republican women.”
Why is there such a yawning gap between the gender composition of the two parties’ elected officials? Neither Trump nor a single bad election cycle caused that gender gap, my research finds. Rather, over the past half-century, ideological, regional and racial realignments within the two major parties have helped Democratic women run and win — while throwing up barriers for Republican women.
How wide is the gender gap between the two parties?
In the current U.S. House, GOP women hold 31 seats, while Democratic women hold 88 — with women making up just 15 percent of the Republican caucus and 40 percent of Congress’s Democrats. In the evenly divided Senate, GOP women hold eight seats while Democratic women hold 16, or twice as many. Overall, about three-quarters of congressional women are Democrats.
A similar gender gap divides the parties in state legislatures: About half of Democratic lawmakers and under a fifth of Republicans are female.
In the figures below, you can see that while the percentage of elected Democrats who are women has climbed over the past three decades, the percentage of elected Republicans who are women has barely budged.
Barriers to electing GOP women in the South
The South has long been the region of the country most hostile to women’s candidacies. While Democrats used to dominate the South, the Republican Party has made its biggest gains here; this is where its greatest opportunities lie for the future.
The South’s generally more conservative climate used to limit both Republican and Democratic women’s chances at elective office. But that’s changed, as gender conservatism is now concentrated almost exclusively among Republicans. It’s in the South where Republican women have the smallest percentage of seats: Just 15 percent of Republican state lawmakers in the region are women, while they make up 19 percent nationally. And in the current Congress, women comprise just 10 percent of Republicans from Southern states, compared with 15 percent nationally.
The South’s challenging environment for women can be seen in the Republican competition to replace Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). Katie Britt, who served as Shelby’s chief of staff on Capitol Hill, is running in the GOP primary to replace him. But Trump dismissed her as “not in any way qualified” and as just an “assistant.” Mo Brooks, a Republican House member also running for the Senate seat, described Britt as a “relatively inexperienced employee.” The Republican Party did not rebut or respond to those comments.
Race matters in electing female Democrats
Since 1965, when Democrats passed the Voting Rights Act, most White Southerners have become Republicans — which has intensified the partisan gender gap. About 40 percent of Southern Democrats in Congress and in state legislatures are female. That’s in part because Black women have been strong candidates.
Similar trends hold for the nation overall. Since the 1980s, women of color — including Black, Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander women — have made gains in elective office at a faster rate than White women, a pattern that has benefited the Democratic Party almost exclusively, since over 90 percent of women of color in elective office identify as Democrats. In the 117th Congress, about 40 percent of the members of Congress of color are women, while only about a fifth of White members of Congress are women. There’s a similar pattern in state legislatures.
Party culture matters, too
At one point in the 20th century, the Republican Party was arguably more likely to support gender equality; for example, its platform supported the Equal Rights Amendment before the Democrats’ platform did. But the parties have realigned on women’s rights.
Today, it’s the Democratic Party that has made gender equality an explicit goal. The Democratic Party makes specific efforts to recruit women. Its decentralized and open culture has enabled outside groups, most notably Emily’s List, to recruit women to run as Democratic candidates. The Republican Party’s more hierarchical culture makes similar efforts difficult. So does its individualistic ideology, which rejects what it considers “identity politics” and therefore the idea of explicitly recruiting anyone from a particular group, such as women. Since women generally need to be encouraged to see themselves as qualified candidates or to consider running, the Republican Party’s commitment to recruiting the “best” candidate without considering gender results in overwhelmingly male candidate pools.
The future of the partisan gender gap
In 2020, the number of Republican women in Congress increased from 13 to 31 in part because Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and other Republican women defied Republican ideology and leadership to recruit and fund female candidates early in the electoral cycle.
But recent events, such as the Texas special election and unchecked sexism in the Republican primary for the Alabama Senate seat call into question whether the Republican Party is willing or able to continue such efforts. Not only did Republicans remove Cheney from the House leadership, but Trump plans to endorse one of her male Republican challengers in 2022. Importantly, the Republican Party remains predominantly Southern, White and conservative — and each of these factors means a more challenging electoral environment for women seeking office.
Laurel Elder is a professor of political science at Hartwick College whose most recent book is “The Partisan Gap: Why Democratic Women Get Elected But Republican Women Don’t” (NYU Press, 2021).