The Number of Women in Congress Will Decline

(From left) Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank signing Wall Street reform in July. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

For all the ballyhoo about this being "the year of the woman," the number of women in Congress looks certain to decline for the first time since 1978. Women lawmakers are dominantly Democratic, and a lot of them are in tough races. More Republican women have broken through as serious candidates than ever before, but there aren't enough of them to make up for the anticipated losses among Democrats. There are now 56 Democratic women in the House and 17 Republicans, with 13 Democratic women in the Senate and 4 Republicans. That adds up to 90 seats occupied by women out of the 535 seats in Congress, far less, of course, than their share of the population. After the election, there will likely be eight to 10 fewer women lawmakers.

Photos: On the Road to Women's Equality Bettmann-corbis

Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out a fundraising plea to underscore what a setback these results would be in terms of women's leadership in a body that is still overwhelmingly male. (The prime example being her own likely dethroning by John Boehner.) Until now, women have steadily gained seats in Congress, and in 1992, the first "year of the woman," more women were elected at one time than ever before, or since. The assumption at the time was that women voters were galvanized by the recent spectacle of an all-male Senate judiciary panel grilling a black woman, Anita Hill, about her accusation of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated for the Supreme Court. (He denied the charge, famously calling the hearings "a high-tech lynching," and went on to narrowly win Senate confirmation.) When the wave of women was swept into the House and Senate, it was taken for granted that their numbers would always go up. This year, while Republicans tout their newly visible women candidates, only four of the 46 "Young Guns" the GOP showcases as leaders are women.

But it's more than a numbers game that worries the traditional pro-choice women's groups that have been at the forefront of the battle to increase the representation of women in Congress. It's the potential impact on policy and hard-won legislative battles where they fear there will be damage. "Women members are more likely to understand the importance and relevance of the women's health agenda, and having fewer of them would have an impact," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

By that measure, a Congress that has more Republicans and fewer women is double trouble, since women are supposed to bring a different perspective, particularly on women's health issues. But unlike '92, when progressive women led the charge, this year's stars are socially conservative women, and they are testing the thesis that women vote differently—i.e., on the liberal side, because of their gender. Women have been the keepers of the flame certainly on reproductive issues, and their reduced numbers will be felt most keenly in the area of abortion rights.

The addition of a class of young, smart, conservative women Republicans will add heft and visibility to the pro-life agenda. The high-profile women in the "year of the woman" are on the Senate side, where they will provide moral support, but most of the activity will be on the House side, where Democrats are bracing for an across-the-board onslaught against liberal policies. But unlike the environment or labor issues, what we think of as women's issues are more directly related to the gender of the lawmakers.

What exactly a less-female, more-conservative Congress might do turns out to be quite extensive from a policy perspective. Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood's vice president for public policy, has compiled a long list where a Republican-led Congress can erode hard-won gains. At the top is Title X of the Health and Human Services budget, the only federally funded program that provides family-planning counseling and access to contraception in the country. After being flatlined for eight years during the Bush administration, it got a $10 million increase last year. "We can definitely see a Republican Congress not providing any increase or cutting the program," Rubiner said. "That's the one we worry about a lot."

Pro-choice groups expect a return of the so-called Stupak amendment, even though Democrat Bart Stupak retired from Congress. It would prevent any health-care plan participating in the exchanges that will be created from offering abortion coverage, even if women pay for it with their own money. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith already has 136 cosponsors for his No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which would, among other things, end tax deductions for any private insurance plans that offer abortion. Indiana Republican Mike Pence, a rising star in the GOP, would gain new energy for his effort to defund Planned Parenthood, which he believes advances an immoral and partisan agenda by providing abortion services.

Republicans will owe their new power to a relentless focus on the deficit and debt, but they will want to take back some of the gains Democrats have made on social issues. There will be fewer liberal women at the table to push back, a turnabout that is troubling to the old guard and signals the advent of a new kind of gender politics, where women can't be taken for granted as the progressive bulwark they once were.