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Gender Politics

For the first time, women constitute 20 percent of the Senate. But will their presence lead to a more productive and less contentious legislative season?

/ Published January 10, 2013

By most accounts, this was one of the most anti-women election seasons in recent memory, say three Smith scholars who study politics, women and gender, and public policy. Politicians from both sides of the aisle were accused of waging or manipulating an ideological “war on women” by using fair pay, abortion, access to birth control and rape as wedge issues to either appeal to voters or rile them up.

Yet, even amid the rhetoric and political rancor, something historic happened: female candidates managed to break through a number of seemingly impenetrable barriers, in several cases securing clear victories against powerful male incumbents. By the time votes were counted, women had earned a record number of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the newly elected Congress, women constitute about 19 percent of the House and, for the first time, 20 percent of the Senate.

With the beginning of a new legislative year, a couple of questions emerge: Will a Congress that boasts more women than ever be more attentive to the policies and issues that women care about, and will the assaults on women’s rights stop?

To find answers, say the Smith professors, you first have to consider the political landscape of the past year and the ramifications of such a contentious election season. It began early, in February 2012, when an Indiana lawmaker claimed that the Girl Scouts of America was a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood, teaching impressionable children about homosexuality and abortion. A few months later, U.S. Representative Todd Akin of Missouri claimed that women who experience “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant because their bodies have a way of “shutting down.” Then, in October, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock of Indiana told the audience during a debate that if a pregnancy does result from a rape, “it is something God intended.”

Nancy Whittier

Such unsettling comments reflect the anxiety that bubbles to the surface when subjects like abortion or access to birth control—both of which can trigger intense reactions—become part of the mainstream discussion. “These are really emotional issues,” says Professor of Sociology Nancy Whittier, whose research examines changes in feminism over the past 30 years and how social movements can lead to revisions in public policy. “They speak directly to people’s most personal beliefs, and, as a result, they’re often very charged.” 

Carrie Baker, an assistant professor of the study of women and gender who teaches classes on gender and public policy, watched the election coverage through the lens of one who has studied women’s movements. She admits that she wasn’t surprised by the hostility of some of the debate. “Frankly, the view has always been that women are bad if they’re doing something we don’t think they should be doing,” she says. “And in many ways that thinking was what was behind some of what happened this year. It’s still very easy to demonize women and blame the victim.”

Take, for example, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s attack against law student Sandra Fluke. When Fluke spoke to House Democrats about the importance of including birth control in insurance coverage, Limbaugh used a series of slurs to describe her. He later apologized, but, as Baker notes, the episode had already set the stage for a more widespread onslaught. “That set up the election season to take on these big, difficult issues,” Baker says.

Whittier also points out that the seven-point gender gap from the 2008 election, when women helped Barack Obama win the White House, made politicians and political strategists from both parties this time around more attuned—for better or worse—to what might drive women or men to the polls.

The problem, Whittier says, is that the policies and ideas that women care about still aren’t taken seriously. “Women’s issues are still defined as lifestyle issues,” she says. “They’re not political. We still tend to define political issues in strictly masculine terms, and though women are treated seriously as a voting bloc, their issues are considered superfluous.”

So, instead of serious discussions about policy, what often emerges is damaging rhetoric and, as Whittier notes, “outrageous comments around reproductive rights and rape.”

Carrie Baker

This lack of understanding and support (mostly among conservative male pundits and politicians) for issues that disproportionately affect women has consequences that go beyond the domestic political sphere. Elisabeth Armstrong, associate professor of the study of women and gender, teaches her students to consider the global effects of U.S. presidential elections and policies toward women. She says women’s rights have become the centerpiece of not only our domestic agenda but also our foreign policy. “The United States has positioned itself as the purveyor of women’s rights. We frame our foreign policy, particularly military interventions, as actions that support women’s rights,” she says. But what the past couple of years have shown is that when it comes to policies and laws that affect women, the U.S. hasn’t quite lived up to its ideal.

“We invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that our bombs are going to make women’s lives better,” Armstrong says. “At the same time, our own representative system doesn’t reflect the diversity or even percentage of women in this country. To the rest of the world, we don’t look like the promised land of women’s rights that we say we are.”

Consider the number of recent attempts to make it more difficult for women to receive basic health care, contraception or equal pay. In 2011, for example, legislators at the state level proposed a record number of restrictions on reproductive health and rights—more than 1,000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group that monitors women’s health issues. These included placing unnecessary conditions on abortion, such as requiring mandatory waiting periods and trans-vaginal ultrasounds. Baker suggests that many of these measures stemmed not only from deep-seated moral and religious objections but also from a fear of what might happen if women are allowed to make their own decisions about their bodies. “Reproductive rights, especially, are about women being able to control their lives,” she says, “and the more empowered women get, the more frightened some people get.”

Though the past couple of years have been divisive, there is an upside: the debate has energized young women and sparked an interest in issues that they perhaps wouldn’t pay attention to. Baker saw this last spring when registrations for her Reproductive Justice class surged. “The course was capped at 20 students, but I had students from all the five colleges begging to get into that class,” she says. The reason, she believes, is that students saw how mistreated Sandra Fluke was and suddenly understood what was at stake. “Today, a lot of young women take for granted the rights that they have, which is understandable because they’ve always had them,” Baker says, “but this time they got a glimpse of the backlash against women’s rights and the potential for those rights to disappear.”

This new energy helped propel 11 of the 18 women who ran for the Senate to victory and gave them a clear mandate to tackle issues involving women’s health, reproductive rights and economic equality. Nonetheless, having more women in Congress doesn’t mean that they’re going to have an easy time in what is still very much an old boys’ club.

Elisabeth Armstrong

Writing in The New York Times in November, Tali Mendelberg, an associate professor of politics at Princeton University, and Christopher F. Karpowitz, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, noted that it was doubtful that the new Congress would give more attention to issues like education, poverty and healthcare—which are of key concern to women. “Our research shows that female lawmakers significantly reshape policies only when they have true parity with men,” Mendelberg and Karpowitz discovered. “In other words, we’ve got a very long way to go.”

At Smith, Armstrong, in particular, is even more pointed in her criticism of Congress’s new configuration, saying the 20 percent figure in the Senate is a “pathetic representation of women. It’s nothing to be proud of.”

But Nancy Whittier is more optimistic and sees this new class of legislators, which includes Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin ’84 of Wisconsin, as being particularly strong. “They are all incredibly smart, skilled and savvy,” she says. “They know what they’re doing.”

The key issues Whittier would like to see them work on include jobs, health care and violence against women. How much they accomplish, though, will depend on their willingness to collaborate and how well they are integrated into the larger legislative body. “They probably have a hard road ahead of them, but I’m feeling celebratory,” Whittier says.

Meanwhile, Carrie Baker says that having more female members of Congress will be meaningful particularly for young women who may be considering a career in public service. “If other women see that these women can succeed, then more women might run for office,” she explains. “My hope lies in the young people and how they’re voting, how they’re looking at the world.”