Old Boy Republican Lions

Republican women-sometimes pro-choice and pro-environment-are sacrificial lambs for the good “ol' boy” GOP lions in Washington who promote their more conservative challengers during election primaries.

Tanya Melich

(WOMENSENEWS)-When I read another story about how the national Republican House leadership wants to elect more women to Congress, I am reminded of the man who visited the zoo and saw a lion was lying down with a lamb.

Amazed, he asked the zookeeper how this was possible. To which the zookeeper replied, “It's no big deal. Every morning we put in a new lamb.”

Well, that's what used to happen to Democratic and Republican women members of the House with their leaders. Now it's just happening with the Republican congressional women.

Around the country, state and local GOP organizations are trying to elect women and promote them, but in Washington, Republican women continue to be sacrificial lambs for the good “ol' boy” GOP lions.

Every congressional election year for two decades, with the predictability of the sun rising, reporters write, and publishers print, a story about how the GOP House hierarchy hopes to elect more women to its ranks and how, after the election, women will become part of the leadership.

The hypocrisy of this bi-annual exercise becomes clear when reporters lay out the statistics: In 2002, only 18 of the 60 women in the House are Republican; the GOP majority has no women heading a standing committee.

The numbers underscore a further embarrassment for the GOP when one reads that from 1995 to 2002 only 17 GOP women have served in the House.

Each congressional cycle, the GOP House leaders showcase a particular woman to prove that the party is female-friendly. For 2002, that woman is Ohio Republican Deborah Pryce, who, according to the inside scoop, is supposed to have a lock on the chairmanship of the House GOP Conference if the party maintains its control after November.

Their message: Elect Deborah Pryce, keep the Republicans in the majority and America's women will be rewarded with one of their own in the inner circle.

In other years, this dubious honor of House Republican woman of the moment has gone to Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state and former Rep. Susan Molinari of New York. Neither succeeded in settling into the inner sanctum of the lions' den.

Despite the party's big buildup for Dunn, she lost her 1998 race for House Majority Leader against Texan Dick Armey. When asked why Armey was given the prize when Dunn had so admirably served the party and would have helped improve the GOP's image with women, some House insiders claimed Armey won because of his seniority. He'd been elected in 1984 and she in 1992. Her turn would come.

This argument makes little sense when considering the saga of the Republican dean of the New Jersey congressional delegation, Rep. Marge Roukema. Next in line to be chair of the House Financial Services Committee, she lost her bid for the chairmanship last year to a congressman who was serving his 10th term, which apparently trumped her 11th.

Now Roukema, a valuable and popular public servant in her state, is retiring. Her once safe Republican fifth congressional district in northern New Jersey is one of the places where a Democrat could win this November.

One of the reasons for this possible shift is that many of her constituents-people of all political persuasions-are unhappy with the rough treatment moderate Roukema received from the GOP leadership. In 1998 and 2000, she faced ugly primary challenges from right-wing Republican Scott Garrett, who has close ties to some of the Washington GOP lions. Their behind-the-scenes negative attitude toward a popular women incumbent is no way to attract new women voters and cement party loyalty.

The result is that a Roukema supporter, Dr. Anne Sumers, has switched parties and become a Democrat in order to run for the Roukema seat against Garrett. Sumers labels herself as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. Her positions on issues are similar to Roukema's. The Sumers' switch and strength in the polls prove the bankruptcy of the GOP House leaders' behavior toward pro-choice, pro-environment GOP women candidates.

Democrats' Changing Attitude

The history of the House Democrats and women is relevant here. From the beginning of the modern women's political movement in the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, the majority Democrats ran the House as an arrogant, chauvinistic fiefdom. Their treatment toward House Democratic women was worse than today's House Republican record.

In the last 10 years, the attitudes of the House Democratic leadership toward its women members have changed. The stark differences between the parties came about because a powerful political force for women candidates developed within the Democratic Party, forcing the leaders to switch.

Fueled by EMILY's List and other organizations working for women's issues, voters have backed Democratic women candidates and rallied behind the party's support for policies the majority of women like.

This has resulted in Democrats winning more elections. Women have become the engine that delivers political power to the Democratic Party. In turn, these victories have meant more Democratic women in the House, and finally, in the House's leadership.

Republican Loyalty to Right Wing Keeps Women at Bay

By comparison, the Republican women's problem remains stuck in an electoral backlash strategy by which the party seeks votes from the religious right in order to compensate for those lost to women's rights supporters.

These fundamentalist allies of the GOP believe women belong in the home, not in politics. They seek to roll back many of the gains women have won in the last 30 years. To maintain its majority, the GOP leadership champions the religious right's agenda-seeking, for example, to limit abortion rights and Title IX laws.

The GOP lions try to embrace mainstream America's view of women while undermining it. They claim unconditional help for female candidates yet oppose legislation guaranteeing women opportunity and justice. This sleight-of-hand technique has not been successful overall as the national numbers show, but electoral victories from regions of the nation where fundamentalists' policies are popular have kept the Republicans in charge of the House. As long as the House GOP lions believe they can hold power with this bait-and-switch finesse, the number of Republican women in the House will remain static.

The women's political movement has made a tremendous impact on Washington's power equation. Without it, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Tom DeLay wouldn't even be trying to spotlight Pryce; Democrat Sumers would not be the heir apparent to Roukema.

Remember, as you read this fall's election stories, including the August 18 piece in Women's Enews about the GOP House leaders helping women, that the lambs are still being sacrificed.

Tanya Melich, a former Republican Party official, is one of the founders of the modern women's political movement and author of “The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report From Behind The Lines.”

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, August 18, 2002:
“GOP Looking to Add Women to Its Ranks”:

The Wish List: