Is It Progress to Elect Republican Women?

Democratic members of congress wear white to honor the women’s suffrage movement. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

One bright spot in these politically bleak times is the surge of Democratic women raising their hands to run for office. Much of this effort has been supported by left-leaning groups that encourage and train women looking to jump into politics — they’ve been inundated with interest from progressives who watched a politically inexperienced reality TV star win the presidency, and thought, I can do this. I can run. Not only that: I need to run. But not all of the organizations looking to help women take office are playing exclusively for the left. At both the state and national levels, nonpartisan and bipartisan groups are encouraging women from both sides of the aisle to seek office, with the thought that the more women involved in the political process, the better.

“There is no perfect party,” says Mary Ellen Miller, executive director of 50-50 in 2020, a nonpartisan, issue-neutral group in Iowa looking to achieve gender equity in the state legislature. “Women say, ‘I’m an Independent, I can’t belong to either party,’ and I tell them, ‘Decide which party you are closest to and get in there.’ You have to change the system inside it. We aren’t going to change it sitting on the outside.”

Other nonpartisan and bipartisan groups agree. Ready to Run, Running Start, and VoteRunLead all reach out to women on a party-blind basis. There are also organizations that support candidates from both sides, but with specific criteria, like the Women’s Campaign Fund, which endorses candidates who back equal pay, family leave, and birth control access.

Miller, a pro-choice Republican herself (“We exist!” she says), has run for both Iowa’s House and Senate. She says that one of the goals of a group like 50-50 in 2020 is for members from both parties to get elected and then work together across the aisle for a saner, more efficient political process. She’s seen it happen in the past. “Women by nature are more collaborative,” she says. “They work toward building consensus.”

Statistically, we know women are embarrassingly underrepresented in government. Men still make up roughly 80 percent of Congress and 75 percent of state legislatures, and account for just under 90 percent of state governors. More women in office would get us closer to equal representation, which on its own would signal progress. But just putting women — any women — into office won’t necessarily advance policy, and with the GOP’s increasingly hostile attitude toward women, efforts to help elect Republicans seeking office raises a key question: Would the Republican Party become more measured if had more women among its ranks? Or if elected in greater numbers, would Republican women continue to vote like their male peers, pushing the GOP’s anti-feminist agenda?

More often, we see Republican women falling in line with their party’s platform — one that calls for limited government, but control over women’s bodies; decreased spending on special programs, but with cuts coming from those mainly relied on by women. It’s why the National Organization for Women, a nonpartisan feminist group founded in the 1960s, hasn’t endorsed a Republican candidate at the federal level in over a decade. There are exceptions, like in 2015, when a group of Republican congresswomen broke from their party and opposed an abortion bill that would put rape survivors at risk.

But there are more examples of the opposite scenario. Just look at Trumpcare: Earlier this month, only three of the 21 Republican women in the House voted against the GOP’s slapped-together health care bill, even though it went out of its way to jeopardize women’s health. Or on the state level, where last week, Iowa’s GOP-controlled legislature — which includes 10 Republican women — passed a bill refusing federal money for family planning services. As a result, four of the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics will be forced to close, even though the vast majority of adults in Iowa support public funding for Planned Parenthood for non-abortion services, which is exactly what the federal funding would have gone toward.

This type of nonsensical governing is exhausting. It’s also dangerous, and the last thing progressive women want to see is a bunch of Ivankas campaigning under the guise of feminism, using it as a branding tool while supporting policies that take women back decades. In the immediate present, this fear is real, and it’s rational.

But looking long-term, there’s a case to be made that liberals could be working against themselves by automatically dismissing moderate Republican women. Look at Republican senator Susan Collins (Maine), who opposed the grossly unqualified Betsy DeVos for education secretary, and publicly spoke out against the GOP’s push to defund Planned Parenthood. Or Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who joined Collins on both issues. If there were more women like them in the Republican Party, would the GOP move closer to the center? Women represent such a small fraction of GOP representatives that it’s hard to know for sure. There are fewer Republican women in Congress today than there were in 2006, and of the 104 women in the upper and lower chambers, two thirds are Democrats.

Erin Loos Cutraro, co-founder and CEO of the non-partisan group She Should Run, says she’s not just looking at the next election cycle, and ultimately, the more women who can see a path for themselves to leadership positions, the better. Since November, She Should Run has had more than 15,000 women sign up for the group’s online incubator, which helps women overcome early hurdles in deciding to run for office. Some of that uptick has been Republicans, but most of the women expressing interest in office are Democrats, which Cutraro says is no coincidence. “I think this is a great testament to, ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it,’” she says. “There are more and more examples of Democratic women [in] service in these leadership roles, which then has this effect on others seeing themselves in those positions.”

While there are certainly partisan conversations that take place within She Should Run’s online community, Cutraro says the goal is to give women a safe space to explore whether or not political office is for them — regardless of their political views. “I can think of an example yesterday, there was a woman who shared that she was selected to serve on this commission. She came back to the community and made a point of saying, ‘I’m a Republican woman, and I’m thrilled to be a part of this community, and I did this because I was encouraged by this community.’ And this magical thing happened where loads of additional women jumped into the conversation saying that making our country better is not about political party. Making our country better is about good government and good leadership.”

Currently, the U.S. lags behind more than 100 other countries when it comes to women’s representation in government, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s most recent report. And while Trump has filled positions with significantly more men than women, not every nation is moving backward. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his cabinet picks include men and women in equal numbers. “It is a government of renewal,” Macron said in a news release. Imagine that.

Is It Progress to Elect Republican Women?