I'll admit it: I thought Sarah Palin might be right. When she and other conservative leaders declared 2010 the Year of the Republican Woman -- and media outlets followed suit -- it seemed plausible. Although I disagreed with the politics of the "mama grizzlies," I was happy to see that a record number of Republican women filed to run for office, even if many were defeated in the primaries. Forty-seven GOP women ran for House seats, and five ran for Senate. (It looked like Democratic women might fare even better than their Republican counterparts; 91 were on the final ballot in House races and nine ran for Senate.)
As I wrote in the Prospect in 2008 after Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Democratic primary, it takes more than a couple of powerful women to change the gender dynamic of U.S. politics. It takes a groundswell, a group of women elected together. That's what made 1992 such a breakthrough election year -- and what made me want to believe the headlines about 2010. If Republican women were indeed elected en masse, they wouldn't be tokens or outliers. They would presumably change the culture of Congress -- and of their party. Despite the amount of press devoted to female Tea Party candidates, the reasonable wing of the GOP has always included a lot of women.
But when the votes were counted in November, women's representation in Congress actually decreased for the first time in the past three decades. And, with the Democrats no longer the majority, Nancy Pelosi lost her position as the highest-ranking woman in government. In an article headlined "John Boehner's boys," Politico noted that many of the congressmen -- and they're all men -- in the new House speaker's inner circle "are friends on the golf course and at regular Washington dinners." To be fair, women in the House did make some progress, going from 5.6 percent to 9 percent of the GOP caucus. But that figure is far short of the 25 percent of House Democrats who are women.
So that's what a Republican "Year of the Woman" looks like.
Some observers weren't surprised. "Several of these women had interesting personal stories or personalities that garnered so much national attention, which obscured the fact that they represented actually a very small portion of the actual candidates," Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, told The New York Times. In other words, Republicans managed to brand themselves a party of women by highlighting outrageous candidates who had little hope of getting elected, like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and by attaching the "mama grizzly" label to every woman candidate with sufficiently conservative views. It's ironic that Democrats have for years tried to avoid being dubbed "the mommy party" only to have Republicans apply the term to themselves and spin it as a positive.
During the later Bush years, the Democrats, still stinging from the 2004 defeat of their effete, windsurfing nominee, were barraged with op-eds urging them to "man up," and view the gender gap as a disadvantage. In the run-up to that year's midterm elections, a cover story in this magazine titled "Who's Your Daddy Party?" celebrated the "veritable platoon of Democratic men," candidates with "exceptionally macho profiles and an appetite for power." Navy veterans! Former quarterbacks! The best American masculinity has to offer! The article concluded that this would surely counteract the Republican-perpetuated theme of "Democratic wimpery." Of the candidates name-checked as espousing an appropriate level of masculine swagger, many were among the conservative Democratic caucus that caused so much trouble for Barack Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid. Half of those macho men did not win their 2010 re-election bids. Clearly, elevating centrist candidates who emulated Republicans' swagger wasn't a path to success for Democrats.
The 2008 presidential primary marked the end of Democrats' quest to out-macho their opponents. It confirmed what many of us already suspected: When the Democrats celebrate and elevate the diversity of their base -- which contains more women, more people of color, more gay people than the other party's -- they win. When they don't proudly claim labels like "the mommy party," they open the door for Republicans to do so, at least superficially. Indeed, women have begun to drift from the Democratic Party: They voted for Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers in 2010 rather than leaning heavily Democratic, as they have historically.
In both putting Palin on the 2008 ticket and in (falsely) touting 2010 as the year of the Republican woman, the GOP proved it learned some lessons from Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy. Democrats should be able to do the same.
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