Historically, the Republican Party has lacked female diversity in its ranks. For many Americans, the stereotypical perception of both the average Republican politician and average Republican voter is that they’re white, middle-aged, and male.
In recent years, the Republican Party has aimed to change its public image, making a considerable effort to attract a more diverse electorate.
Despite what critics say, the reality is that the GOP has made significant strides promoting increased female representation within the party.
Last year, Americans elected a record number of women to both the House and Senate. While still well behind the pace of Democrats — there are 106 Democratic women and 38 Republican women in the 117th Congress — of the 13 Democratic incumbents who lost their seats on election night, 10 were defeated by Republican women.
But why has it taken so long for Republicans to welcome inclusivity? Well, it’s not for lack of trying. The problem is the party’s efforts have been largely unsuccessful until now.
Republicans and ‘The Year of the Woman’
Women’s participation in American politics was essentially nonexistent; women were barred from enjoying basic democratic practices (i.e., voting) until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919. While women did serve in Congress — like Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, the first women elected to Congress in 1916 — they were the exception and not the rule in both parties.
A demographic shift in politics wouldn’t begin taking place until 1992 — commonly referred to as ‘The Year of the Woman’ — during which the number of women elected to Congress spiked by nearly 60%.
As more women also went to the polls to cast their votes, Democrats were the beneficiaries. In the 1996 presidential election, President Clinton defeated Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, by a comfortable nine-point margin. That resounding victory was driven in large part by the eleven-point gender gap in Clinton’s favor between male voters who split evenly between both candidates and female voters who trended toward the incumbent.
This imbalance between voting demographics based on gender has become even more pronounced in recent years. In the 2020 election, women voters heavily supported Joe Biden, with 57% voting for him versus 42% voting for Donald Trump.
How an “Autopsy” and #MAGA Elected a New Generation of Republican Women
To stop the bleeding as minorities, in general, gravitated more and more toward Democrat candidates and policies, the GOP recognized it had no choice but to cast a wider net inside a bigger tent. After Mitt Romney lost to President Obama in the 2012 presidential election, Republicans had to take a strong dose of bitter medicine: they were hemorrhaging minority votes. And they would need them to win elections if they wanted to survive as a major political party.
What followed was the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project — more commonly known as the “autopsy” — a postmortem on why the GOP lost in 2012 and what they’d need to do to win future elections.
At the top of the list was courting women.
Even before 2012, the GOP sought to change the conversation about its perceived lack of diversity. At least concerning women. Since 2008, when the late John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to be his running mate in that year’s presidential election, Republicans have elevated women to powerful political positions to make the party appear more inclusive.
While Palin’s turn in the spotlight ultimately proved unsuccessful, it was impactful. Why? Because it normalized the idea of Republican women running for higher office. That has, at least, paid off at the state level. Over the past decade, six Republican women have become governors. Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez also became the first women and first women of color to lead South Carolina and New Mexico, respectively.
When talking about Republican women and, frankly, Republicans in general, it’s impossible not to address the elephant in the room. Whether you’re a fan or not, former-President Trump played a role in the record number of Republican women elected to Congress in 2020. And many of them had the #MAGA seal-of-approval from Trump himself. All in all, it nearly doubled the number of Republican women serving in Congress over the course of a single election cycle.
But, step off the “Trump Train” for a moment, and you’ll see the GOP remains on thin ice with women voters.
Women Voters Still Aren’t Buying What the GOP’s Selling
Lots of new women in Congress is good news, so let’s not take away from that. But there’s a deeper problem that exists for Republicans and the women voters they’re hoping to lure away from Democrats.
Simply put, most women aren’t all that crazy about Republican policies and ideology.
In a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer, only 38% of women surveyed said they identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, compared to 56% of women who said they identified as Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party.
Inherent ideological differences between female voters and the Republican party, particularly with respect to women’s issues, help explain the gap.
Take abortion, for instance. The GOP, a decidedly pro-life party, is in direct conflict with the 53% of women who consider themselves pro-choice. Or, consider expanding paid-maternity leave. 87% of women believe in the expansion of complete employer-paid maternity leave.
Those are just two of many examples, some that are more recent and others that have plagued the party for decades.
The easiest way for the Republican Party to increase support from women is to shift its political dogma. Broadly, the U.S. remains a center-right country. However, the GOP has yet to balance its most zealous ideology and what women want.
Until that happens, another year will pass Republicans by as they fade further into demographic oblivion.