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Congress 100 years later: what would Jeanette Rankin think?

Rankin would likely see the glass as both half full and half empty when it comes to women, campaigns, and elections.

Female Senate Democrats Call For Raising Of Minimum Wage For Women Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This week, Mischiefs of Faction is hosting a symposium to celebrate the centennial of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Our first post provides a biographical sketch of Rankin’s career, the second post highlights the underappreciated role of women’s groups in American policymaking, and our third post explains how female candidates can spark interest in political campaigns.

When Jeanette Rankin became the first women elected to Congress 100 years ago, I imagine she probably thought a lot about how she stood out as the only woman among a sea of male colleagues. I bet she wondered whether her success would make it easier for future generations of women to run for office. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she speculated about whether her pacifism, feminism, and advocacy for civil rights would shape female legislators’ agendas in the years to come. What’s less clear to me is how Rankin would assess the progress we’ve made in each of these realms.

Consider the raw numbers of women in Congress. When Montana voters elected Rankin in 1917, she was the only woman to serve in the House of Representatives. Now, on any given day, when we scan the internet, check our smartphones, turn on the TV, or read the paper, we stumble upon high-profile women in politics. Hillary Clinton was the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, currently serves as minority leader. Sens. Patty Murray and Debbie Stabenow hold two of the top four Democratic leadership posts in the Senate. And Ronna Romney McDaniel chairs the Republican National Committee.

A closer inspection of US political institutions, however, makes it painstakingly clear that men continue to dominate the face of American politics. In the 2016 presidential election, only two of the 22 major party candidates were women. The speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court are men. Forty-six states — including the largest 20 — have male governors. And men outnumber women roughly four to one in key elected positions at the local, state, and national levels. In fact, of the more than 12,000 people who have served in the US Congress, only 362 have been women.

There’s no question that there’s been progress over the past century. But before Rankin would tell us to pat ourselves on the backs for all we’ve accomplished, she might also remind us that at this rate, it’ll take another 100 years to approach any semblance of gender parity in numeric representation.

Rankin would also likely see the glass as both half full and half empty when it comes to women, campaigns, and elections.

For the past several decades, female candidates — Democrats and Republicans alike — have performed just as well as men and raised just as much money in both primaries and general elections. The latest research indicates that it’s not only on Election Day that women fare as well as men.

Although we might all be able to conjure up images of notable exceptions, the campaign trail women navigate looks strikingly similar to men’s. Women and men campaigning for Congress run the same number of television ads and emphasize the same issues and traits in their advertising and social media messages. They receive comparable media coverage, in both volume and substance. And voters describe male and female candidates as having similar traits, such as leadership and integrity, and rate them as equally capable on a wide array of issues.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that women remain significantly less likely than men to run for office in the first place. National surveys of potential candidates — lawyers, business leaders, educators, and political activists — consistently reveal a gender gap in political ambition that persists across generations and over time. Women are less likely than men to run for office for two central reasons: 1) Even when they have the exact same résumé, women are more likely than men to doubt that they are qualified to run for office; and 2) even when they’re just as politically active, women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office.

Both of these factors are tough nuts to crack because they’re deeply linked to widespread perceptions of gender bias in politics. Women are just as successful as men when they run for office, but that’s not what the narrative suggests. Snapshots of our overwhelmingly male-dominated political institutions make it hard to believe that gender bias isn’t a culprit. And high-profile examples of overt political sexism — just think back to the 2016 presidential election — make it reasonable to conclude that women in politics need to be twice as good to get half as far as men. These perceptions discourage women from running for office, and they likely affect the choices of the party leaders, donors, and activists who recruit candidates.

Rankin might find it remarkable that the women who make it onto the campaign trail face a far less hostile environment than most people imagine. But she’d also recognize that the lopsided ratio of male to female candidates — a ratio that has held quite steady for the past several election cycles — highlights the work that remains.

Finally, she would likely have a mixed response to the extent to which her female successors have carried the banner of feminism.

Until the early 2000s, her legacy looked to be intact. Women in Congress did seem fundamentally different from men. Female members of Congress were more likely than men to support “women’s issues,” such as pay equity, access to child care, abortion rights, and efforts to raise the minimum wage. Moreover, women on both sides of the aisle were more likely than men to sponsor and co-sponsor bills that focused on women’s issues.

As the parties have polarized, and moderate members have become a dying breed, these patterns have dissipated. Today, legislators’ party identities, as opposed to their sex, shape their policy agendas and positions. Within each party, congresswomen are now largely ideologically indistinguishable from congressmen.

That’s not to say, of course, that women’s presence in US political institutions doesn’t make a difference. Recent studies have found that women in Congress deliver more federal spending to their districts, prioritize earmark requests pertaining to women’s issues, have greater success keeping their sponsored bills alive, spur young women’s political engagement, and value and contribute to the social fabric of Congress. But when it comes to the likelihood of advocating for a feminist agenda, the D or R in front of Congress members’ names is far more telling than the presence or absence of a Y chromosome in their DNA.

So where does this leave us? Well, there’s plenty of reason for Rankin to raise a glass to all the progress women in politics have made. But she’d be remiss in her “We’ve come a long way, baby” toast not to mention that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jennifer L. Lawless is a professor of government and director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. Her most recent book is Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, co-authored with Danny Hayes.