The number of women on the other side of the aisle — currently 88 — has been growing for decades. The first milestone came in 1985, when there were only 12 Democratic women in the House. That year, the pro-choice mega-fundraiser EMILY’s List (“Early Money Is Like Yeast — it makes the dough rise”) was born, and the Democratic Party began a slow but steady transformation.
The recent influx of Democratic women into politics was spurred dramatically four years ago by a flagrant misogynist’s defeat of one of the most competent presidential candidates in our history. The subsequent Women’s March further fueled the surge. EMILY’s List was deluged with women streaming through the cracks in the glass ceiling.
Almost 40% of the House Democrats were female. The gutsy candidates largely supported each other, but further advancing them were party leadership, funders and a legion of like-minded groups. The surge in the Democratic victories of well-funded female candidates was a wake-up call for Republicans that they had to “diversify or die.” What Dems did in that election cycle became a playbook for the GOP. Existing Republican political action groups, like Value in Electing Women (VIEW) and Winning for Women gained traction as never before.
What a transformation. Several years ago, a Republican changemaker complained to me that the party wasn’t putting its thumb on the scale to help women overcome primary hurdles, such as the reluctance of conservative men to back them financially. (That complaint echoed research I had commissioned from a team of political and data scientists.) The lack of female candidates, in turn, exacerbated the exodus of women from the party. Even before Trump, insiders told me that Republican women voters were switching parties for ideological reasons like climate change, immigration reform and health care. In other words, this shift likely wouldn’t abate if or when Trump was defeated — although many women said they blamed the party for supporting him.
In 2020, with Trump controlling the party, boorish insults and all, and the polls predicting an enormous gender gap, the GOP had few options. They recruited women to run and funded their campaigns. When women voters left, women candidates ran — and women won.
So here we are. This week, the House will have a record number of women — at least 141 — and the change isn’t cosmetic. A number of the new GOP “electeds” are already emphasizing bipartisanship. Republican Nancy Mace of South Carolina told CNN’s Dana Bash that this year’s record turnout is “a real referendum” on Washington DC and a reminder to politicians on both sides of the aisle to find areas where they can work together. “People are struggling.” And she added that they need solutions.
How should the women of both parties approach this challenge as they take their seats in the House? Obviously, each has her own past and personality. But for starters, just be women. Break bread together — regularly. Former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulksi famously began a dinner tradition for her colleagues in the 1990s — and friendships bloomed. Fast forward some 20 plus years. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, describe how when Gillibrand and her family vacationed in Alaska, Murkowski hosted a dinner party in her friend’s honor and Murkowski’s husband taught her sons to salmon fish. No wonder that when a government shutdown loomed in 2013, several of the women around that famous dining table came together to avert it.
As women fill a quarter of the seats of Congress, the idea that they are more collaborative than men is becoming axiomatic. Hopefully the prophesy will be self-fulfilling, and a buttress to the shift in tone. “Women are tired of the bickering, and they want to get stuff done,” said Iowa’s newly-elected Republican Ashley Hinson. At that same post-election Politico event, Patricia Russo, of the non-partisan Yale Campaign School, said, “We’re much more easily able to check our egos at the door for the greater good.”
Research backs them up. In a 2016 study by the Center for American Women and Politics, a large majority of 83 Representatives used personal anecdotes to describe how they and their colleagues are more collaborative and results-oriented than men. With notable exceptions, the cross-party women-to-women partnerships have been impressive, especially given the stunning disparity (about four to one) between the Democratic and Republican percentages of women in the two parties. From that point of view, even as an ardent Democrat myself, I see the value of increasing the number of Republican women in the House. What I know is that women at the edge of a political spectrum have told me, in dozens of conversations, that they can often find common cause with women on the opposite edge.
I’m not surprised. I’m accustomed to coaching — and being coached by —thousands of women leaders in war zones who are making life and death decisions every day. They have their fingers on the pulse of their communities. They know which young men have weapons under their mattresses. Ironically, as second-class citizens, they aren’t as threatening as their male counterparts. And they don’t get stuck on dissent at the expense of solutions. For all that we wring our hands, not knowing how to decrease the scourge of war, the result is a show-stopper: if women play a significant role forging a peace agreement, research shows it’s three times likelier to last.
Today, Americans are living in a political war zone. The good news is that our policymakers know how to bridge divides. The tragic news is that we aren’t doing it. In the US or worldwide, the value of a diverse group of decision-makers can be dismissed as “add women and stir.” It’s true — their involvement isn’t enough. But women are an essential ingredient for creating compromise.
At the UN, when I insisted that there’s room for women at negotiating tables if we just pull up more chairs, an official answered that elbow room isn’t the problem. “Warlords refuse to have females on their teams” he said, matter-of-factly, “because they’re afraid women will compromise.”
As with men, there will always be exceptions to the rule. But that’s the point. My experience tells me that the exceptions will prove the rule. Someday the old boys’ club may seem as quaint as a pay phone. Will the change be Republican women? Starting January 3, in the well-worn words of the outgoing POTUS, “We’ll see what happens.”