Feminists have been working for decades to get more women into politics. And it’s working ― a historic number of women are heading to Congress in January.
But this year, there’s a complicating factor: The biggest shift is in Republican women, with a record-breaking 17 new female GOP lawmakers set to be sworn in next year. Most of these women oppose feminist policies like abortion rights, paid family leave and equal pay. Some back QAnon conspiracies and racist policies.
For feminists, women winning office isn’t a victory on its own. Those women need to back policies that help other women, too.
“It is important to elect more women ― on face value, I agree with that. But I think the reason it’s important is because of women’s lived experiences,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director at Run For Something, a national nonprofit that recruits and supports young progressives of diverse backgrounds running for office. “If the women we’re electing are not going to govern with that lived experience ― where does the value add come from?”
Most of the women in Congress are Democrats, and that will continue to be true next year. Democrats elected 105 women to Congress, whereas Republicans elected at least 36. But that result was still big for the GOP, breaking the party’s record of 30 Republican women elected to Congress in 2006.
Republicans funneled money into women’s campaigns and primaries ― an obstacle for many GOP women, who historically have had trouble winning primaries. They face bigger challenges than their Democratic counterparts, including that they’re usually less conservative than their Republican male counterparts. And even when they’re not, they’re often perceived as more liberal than their male counterparts, according to research from political scientist Danielle M. Thomsen.
This year, many of the Republican women elected are extremely conservative. They include: Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who owns a gun-themed open-carry restaurant and rose to prominence after defying COVID-19 shutdowns; Texas’ Beth Van Duyne, best known for supporting a conspiracy theory that Muslims were plotting to take over the U.S. and enforce sharia law; and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, an openly racist QAnon conspiracy theorist who has already vowed to “end every gun-free zone” in the country. All three GOP politicians are anti-abortion and support repealing the Affordable Care Act, which covers reproductive health services for millions of women.
Some women’s rights advocates worry that people will conflate gender equality with gender parity when looking at these female Republican politicians.
“Is it progress for women’s equity and women’s rights in general to elect people who are going to chip away at those rights? That’s not what I spend my days doing. I spend my days fighting for people who will fight for both of those things,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, a national organization that supports pro-choice, Democratic female candidates.
“Is it progress for women’s equity and women’s rights in general to elect people who are going to chip away at those rights?”
That’s not to say there’s no value in having women represented in both major parties. Early exit polls show that 42% of women voted for President Donald Trump. Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, yet only one-quarter of Congress.
“I truly believe that we cannot thrive as a country unless we have women represented on both sides of the aisle,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to get more women into politics.
“Women are not monolithic. There isn’t one way to lead as a woman,” she added. “We don’t expect all men to vote the same way, yet there is this expectation that every woman is going to show up the same way on certain issues.”
Women on both sides of the aisle tend to work more collaboratively, are more open to working on bipartisan issues and tend to be more results-oriented than their male counterparts, according to research from the Center for American Women and Politics. “Having more women in Congress means that perhaps we might be more likely to break at least some of the partisan gridlock, which is crucial,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Republican women are not immune to the sexism found within their party ― and that internalized sexism could impact their effectiveness as candidates, argued Erin Vilardi, founder of Vote Run Lead, a nonpartisan organization that helps train women of all parties to run for office.
“Subscribing to an anti-woman agenda does not make them any safer in their seats, despite that they’ve been ‘riding with the boys,’” she said. “A deeply rooted sexism exists, and these leaders should be wary about what this could mean for their legacy and opportunities.”
After all, all the women who ran successfully this year were able to do so thanks to the hard work of the feminists who came before them ― those who fought for women’s right to vote, women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies, women’s right to access birth control and family planning, and so much more.
Feminists hope these Republican female politicians will bear that in mind and do what they can to help other women succeed.
“It is because of feminism and the progress that the women’s movement has made that these women can run and they’re able to win,” Litman said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re advancing the cause of feminism.”