With Mitt Romney’s (inaccurate) assertion that he requested “binders full of women” to find female appointees to state offices when he was the incoming governor of Massachusetts, so-called “women’s issues” have once again taken center stage in the American elections.
Earlier this summer, one Republican nominee for Senate caused his party headaches just before their national convention by asserting that abortion services were unnecessary for rape victims because, in the event of a “legitimate rape…the female body has ways to shut that things down”. Liberal bloggers have declared the existence of a “War on Women” by religious conservative lawmakers intent on scaling back reproductive rights and equal pay protection in various state legislatures.
The salience of such controversies has led pundits to speculate whether “women’s issues” will be central to female voters this year, but it is worth putting such assertions in context. Twenty years ago, controversy over the lack of female representation among lawmakers led to a Year of the Woman in 1992 (although later 1994 was deemed the Year of the Angry White Male and 1996 the Year of the Soccer Mom).
With the “binders” controversy (surrounding events from 2002) still fresh, it is worth considering just what the state of women in American politics is today and how it has changed in recent years.
Just 12% of the states in the Union are led by women (six out of 50). There are currently four female Republican governors (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina). There are two Democrats (North Carolina and Washington), both of whom are leaving office in January, although the female Democratic nominee in New Hampshire is a toss-up to win that state’s contest in two weeks.
Currently, 78 of 435 members of the House are women, or 18%. 52 of 78 are Democrats. In the Senate, a comparable 17% of the higher chamber is female. Of 100 senators (two per state), 17 are women and just five of them are Republicans.
Despite these seemingly low totals, they represent a tremendous growth over the past twenty years. At the time of the 1992 elections, there were only 30 women in the House and two in the Senate. Rally chants of “Two percent is not enough!” were commonplace during an election campaign that saw the emergence of a “gender gap” in the vote. Since Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president has won the majority of women voters, and usually by about ten points more than the male vote has split.
The “Year of the Woman”, as it was proclaimed in 1992, was a reaction to the late 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by another lawyer and former employee, Anita Hill, who was questioned aggressively by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. Thomas ultimately won confirmation to the bench by a narrow margin, where he has since become the most conservative member of the Court, while attitudes toward acceptable (and legal) workplace behaviour in the United States have evolved significantly as a result of the attention.
But another result was the record number of women who ran for elected office in 1992. After election night, the number of women in the House climbed from 30 to 48, and the Senate tripled from two women to six, with the newly-elected including the first African-American woman, the first two Jewish women, and another candidate who campaigned as “a mom in tennis shoes”.
While it might be difficult to predict 435 House elections in 2012, it seems a certainty that there will be a marginal increase in the number of female senators. Two Republican women are retiring (Maine, Texas), but in Hawaii both party nominees are women (the Democrat is favoured, and would be both the first Asian-American woman and the first Buddhist in the Senate) and a Republican woman is likely to win an open Democratic seat in Nebraska.
Assuming that Claire McCaskill is successful in retaining her seat against Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, that means the numbers will only increase based on currently competitive races. Female Democrats – including the first open lesbian elected to Congress (in 1998) – are leading in Senate races in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and others have fighting chances in Nevada and North Dakota. Female Republican Senate nominees face longer odds but remain competitive in Connecticut and New Mexico.
Of course, it will never really be the Year of the Woman until one wins the presidency. While a number of women have been the nominees of minor parties since the 19th century, female political leaders with the exception of Hillary Clinton have fared poorly in seeking their party’s nomination, and the one female vice presidential nominee representing each major party (Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Republican Sarah Palin in 2008) were essentially desperation picks by losing candidates hoping to shake up the status quo of their respective races.
With speculation building that Hillary Clinton might again seek the Democratic nomination in four years, 2016 may yet prove to be the ultimate Year of the Woman in America. But given that there are not any serious other possibilities on the horizon (or in the binders) there is clearly still a long way to go.