A Feminist Lens on the New Congress

With the midterm elections now several days behind us, we can assess what the new U.S. Congress  looks like for women in general and for progressive, pro-choice feminists in particular.

There will be at least 85 voting women members of Congress in January. Depending on how five undecided races turn out (four in the House, one–Lisa Murkowski of Alaska–in the Senate), the percentage of women in Congress will either remain the same or, at the most, go down by about 1.5 percent. Considering that the current percentage is 17 percent women in the Senate and about 15 percent women in the House, obviously there’s still a long way to go towards gender equity.

–There will be eight new Republican women in the House and half as many new Democratic women. The Republican newcomers are Martha Roby (Ala.), Sandy Adams (Fla.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Christy Noem (S.D.), Diane Black (Tenn.)  and Jaime Herrera (Wash.). Just one, Herrera, is a woman of color. On the other hand, the four Democratic newcomers are all women of color: Terri Sewell (Ala.), Karen Bass (Calif.), Colleen Hanabusa (Ha.) Frederica Wilson (Fla.).

–We lost nine Democratic House members, eight of whom strongly supported reproductive  rights. Sad goodbyes to Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), Dina Titus (Nev.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.), Mary Jo Kilroy (Oh.) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.).  Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, who also lost,  cosponsored the Stupak-Pitts amendment and was then vilified in Republican ads for supporting Obama’s health-care reform.

–We lost one pro-choice incumbent in the Senate and added an anti-choice woman. Democrat Blanche Lincoln (Ariz.), who was generally pro-choice but voted to outlaw late-term abortions, lost her seat, while the only woman newcomer to the Senate–Palin-supported Republican Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)–strongly opposes reproductive choice.

–The biggest loss to feminists  is the pro-choice House Democratic leadership team. Unquestionably, we’ll miss Nancy Pelosi in her pioneering role as the first woman House Speaker, along with her pro-choice team of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Replacing them  will be the virulently anti-reproductive-rights Republican leadership team of John Boehner (Oh.), Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Pete Sessions (Tex.).

–Thirteen anti-choice Democrats were defeated by anti-choice Republicans. And 24 House Democrats who lost had voted yes on the Stupak/Pitts Amendment. (We hope this suggests that Democrats are better off putting forth strong pro-choice candidates, since the anti-choice ones don’t have deep support anyway.)

–We won’t miss three powerful anti-choice Democratic House chairs who lost or retired. They are Ike Skelton (Mo.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee; the retired David Obey (Wisc.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee; and James Oberstar (Minn.), chair of the Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure. Obey insisted on inserting funding for abstinence-only programs to match funding for comprehensive family planning programs in the House appropriations bills; Skelton fought the ERA extension in the late 1970s.

–Bye bye, Blue Dogs. While certain conservative Republicans obviously fared well in the election, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats were, as a whole, trounced. The Blue Dog caucus lost nearly half its membership–26 of 54, including two of its four co-chairs. The Progressive Caucus, meanwhile, is likely to grow beyond its current public membership of 84.

Stay tuned for more analysis.

Thanks to Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority for the analysis; for more, see here.

Pro Choice protester Photo from Flickr user Jenn Farr under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Very interesting stuff. I don't think I've read much analysis about the meaning of the Blue Dogs loss, but I will be straightforward and say, I think we need people in the center, coming from both sides. I'm not so sure I like it when there are more just at certain points on the spectrum. I have to think about this, but haven't we often complained about there not being enough moderates on the right? I think to not have moderates on the left – I don't know – we should be careful what we wish for. Just thinking out loud.

  2. Carol King says:

    Thanks for this analysis Michele. I don't think there's a comparison between moderates on the left to moderates on the right. The center of the political universe has shifted so far to the right that people we once considered far right are now considered middle of the road. For example, John McCain has been anti-woman as long as he's been in office but he was lionized as a moderate Republican. As for the "Blue Dogs," they should have known that conservative/reactionary voters are given a choice between a real Republican and a Republican Lite candidate – they usually go for the full blown Republican.

  3. Susan Rubin says:

    Thanks for the blog, it's a great relief to stop hearing the pundits squeal, and read some real analysis. All in all, considering that this country is in a fight for what KIND of society we want, I think we did well. The always-wonderful Gail Collins of the NY Times did a similar analysis today, and between your blog and her post, I think I can safely go outside again without fear that I will yell at somebody, or suggest that we ask certain states to withdraw from the USA!

  4. Guest342890 says:

    I think to insinuate that the number of women, or the percentage of women, in elected positions indicates equality is incorrect. Though I agree that we've got a ways to go, EQUALITY means that men and women are equal… and therefore equally qualified (based on sex, anyway), to hold an elected office. I would not vote for a candidate just because she is a woman, and neither would (should) you. There are other issues at hand here. It is very possible that a man could better represent me, depending upon my views. ALSO, you seem to espouse the Democratic party as our superior pro-choice allies, yet cite several Democrats who are NOT pro-choice. I think to give them our support, when they aren't all truly supporting us, isn't reasonable.

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