Amplifying Women’s Congressional Power

Having women represented in legislative bodies makes for better governing. Intentional efforts can amplify women’s power—and staying power—in the halls of Congress.

Dr. Maya Kornberg has spent a lot of time thinking about congressional committees and the role they play in the way legislatures do business. I spoke with her after the publication of her Newsweek op-ed earlier this year in which she elaborated on the fact that, since the 118th U.S. Congress convened in January, men named “Mike” now outnumber women two-to-one among committee chairs. The piece pushes past the truism that women are underrepresented in Congress to underscore the point that, once elected, they are even more significantly underpowered.


As a political scientist and research fellow in the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Kornberg aims to use research “to advocate for making things more equitable and more democratic” as part of a reform-minded process. Just one intentional downstream effect of this broad research agenda is to enhance women’s influence in public life through advanced understanding, so that when women have a seat at the proverbial table—or on a congressional committee—they have a better chance of sitting at the head of it.

“Committees tell us a lot about the dynamics of power,” Kornberg said, both “between party leadership and individual members” and a broader story about identity and gender, including who wields and “who is left out of power.”

Though she did not undertake her recently published book, Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in Lawmaking, with an explicit focus on gender and American legislative policymaking, the story of women’s relative power in Congress was one of many stories  that emerged through that inquiry. Given the historical and political context, “I think that all political science work is looking at stories that are gendered and racialized… there is always a good reason to be applying a gender angle.”

Looking at committees in the United States and abroad, Kornberg has found a clear pattern: Even as women’s representation advances, their influence is blunted by persisting underrepresentation—not only in legislative bodies overall, but in the paucity of key committee leadership roles they occupy once they hold congressional office relative to their numbers in the Chamber.

To wit, even with 29 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress, women currently have only 17 percent of committee leadership positions, considering both chairs and ranking members.

Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in the Legislative Process by Maya L. Kornberg. (Columbia University Press)

The Power of the Purse: Fundraising and Campaign Finance Reform

“Congressional committees are important as a pathway to power for two reasons,” said Kornberg.

  • First, “because committees are where bills take shape,” giving committee members a meaningful chance to influence the substance of legislation.
  • Second, “because committees in the American context are a way that members can fundraise.”

Kornberg said women, particularly women of color, struggle with many obstacles when it comes to raising money, especially for competitive, and therefore expensive, campaigns. Amplifying the power of small donors through campaign finance reform may help lift up female and other underrepresented candidates, she added—plus the bonus effect of strengthening female donors, who are also more likely to be small donors. “So, from both sides of it you are amplifying voices that are marginalized.”

From a committee perspective, the assignments women get increasingly tell a story of how much money they can raise for their campaigns, making the finance angle tremendously important. And it is “not just how much money you’re raising for yourself,” says Kornberg, “it’s also how much money you’re raising for the party,” a facet of the issue that may be beyond what reform aimed at strengthening small donor public financing can tackle.

Steering Committees: Who’s at the Helm?

Steering committees of both parties are increasingly the ones that make decisions when it comes to committee assignments and committee leadership, said Kornberg. The recent unanimous decision of the House GOP Steering Committee to give committee assignments to Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar on the House Homeland Security Committee and the Committee on Natural Resources, respectively, emphasize this point.

Steering committees’ processes in making such assignments can often be quite opaque, though in some cases they can be more obvious. As an example of the latter, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had long vowed to put Greene and Gosar back on committees, and Greene had specifically lobbied for her assignment and was a prominent defender of McCarthy in his bid for the role of speaker.

“It’s understandable that these are political decisions,” said Kornberg, “but I do think that the parties can make an active effort to take gender and other diversity considerations into account when they decide things like which members are going to be on these key A-list committees that everyone wants to be on, that also help you get more funds for your campaign, or also give you access to influencing the most pressing policy issues.”

“For party leadership, who sits on these steering committees is key,” Kornberg noted, adding that diversifying the committee ranks must be prioritized by prominent members of the parties to achieve broader structural changes. That assumes, though, that party leadership places value on these goals rather than actively working against them.

“There is just more space to be promoting and helping women and people of color when they reach Congress,” said Kornberg.

Parties can make an active effort to take gender and other diversity considerations into account when they decide things like which members are going to be on these key A-list committees that everyone wants to be on.

Maya L. Kornberg

(Courtesy of Maya Kornberg)

Politics and the Criticality of Committee Assignments

The value of committee roles is evidenced by how vehemently parties spar over, vie for, and use them as means of exacting retribution.

In February, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments of hers about Israel that were condemned, including within her own party, as antisemitic. Her removal was seen as payback by the new Republican majority in the House for when Democrats spearheaded the removal of Reps. Greene of Georgia and Gosar of Arizona from their respective committee assignments in 2021—in those cases, due to social media posts endorsing conspiracy theories and violence against Democrats, including an animated video depicting Gosar killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and attacking President Biden.

These tit-for-tat tactics over plum committee roles further underscore their importance in the enactment of congressional power and demonstrate the multiplier effects of the intersectional status of women of color when it comes to obstacles on the path to power.

Omar was one of three high-profile Democrats to lose a committee assignment under the new House majority. She and Democratic supporters maintained that she was being silenced due to her status as a Muslim immigrant, for which her political opponents, including former president Trump, have long stereotyped and maligned her, playing on base fears in the electorate. Recall Trump’s presiding over chants of “send her back” at his rallies, calling her “foulmouthed,” and a “troublemaker” who is “not very smart.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) departs from the House Chamber following a vote to oust her from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Feb. 2, 2023. The chamber approved the resolution in a party-line 218-211-1 vote. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) voted present. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Misinformation, Bias and Political Violence

Beyond the committee context, when looking at the midterm elections, Kornberg found many misinformation tropes infused with similar “racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny” that play upon people’s preconceived biases and, more nefariously, may serve to perpetuate them.

My own study on the gendered implications of fake news for women in politics shows how fake news stories can evoke gendered narratives of women as unfit for leadership roles and be associated with more negative coverage of female versus male contenders.

This perpetuation of stereotypes in the political sphere, Kornberg said, is of clear concern regarding who is targeted and with what consequence.

Negative and misogynistic depictions in traditional and social media of women and other historically stigmatized groups not only raise doubts regarding their fitness for office but can also expose them to risk of physical harm. A right-wing militia’s plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in 2020, for instance, was said by many, mostly Democrats, to have been incited by Trump’s barrage of tweets assailing her as incompetent (dubbing her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” and calling her a “failing” governor and “power hungry hypocrite.”)

In her work on addressing election misinformation, Kornberg and her Brennan Center colleagues Mekela Panditharatne and Ruby Edlin recommended several strategies. Kornberg hopes they might also prove useful as a form of inoculation against election misinformation infused with racism, misogyny and other kinds of hate speech that can lead to violent rhetoric and actions. Understanding how corrosive false narratives promulgate led the Brennan Center team to promote education—in the form of “prebunking and debunking”—by enlisting the help of “civic groups, news organizations, and social media and internet companies” in efforts to identify and remove false and violent rhetoric. 

Prebunking—in essence, warning people about misinformation before they see it—“is, at the end of the day, just education that can help… people’s ability to think critically,” said Kornberg. Some stereotypes and misinformation tropes, she said, are not explicitly understood to be misogynist or antisemitic by some who share them, as culture can reinforce certain implicit biases that people hold.

Offering the example of “the antisemitic trope that George Soros was somehow involved in manipulating the election,” Kornberg argued many people may not even realize that this piece of misinformation is rooted in antisemitic stereotypes. 

Global Lessons Learned

An international community of women in politics are facing the same issues, according to Kornberg’s research—in Latin America, Europe, Asia and many other places where women are less likely, for instance, to be placed on powerful committees, and more likely to experience political violence—both rhetorical and actual—in the course of their political careers.

The Council on Foreign Relations reported that 44 percent of women elected representatives globally have been threatened in office and Princeton University’s “Threats and Harassment” database shows that women public officials are 3.4 times more likely to be targeted than men.

It is also well documented, Kornberg said, that the political violence faced by women in office (and their families and staff by association) internationally, can deter them from running again and from taking on engagement opportunities due to fear for their own safety. And, though women face more such threats than their male counterparts, in many cases they don’t get extra security.

When women are deterred from running for or holding office, it represents a loss to both democratic principles and citizen interests. Having women represented in legislative bodies has an evident value from the citizen’s perspective, Kornberg’s own work has shown—especially among women and girls who are more likely to be politically engaged when they see elected officials taking on issues that pertain to women, like addressing domestic and sexual violence or the affordability of menstrual hygiene products.

Given the universality of the issues that confront them, Kornberg advocates making space for “looking at …how other female legislators who are not in the United States are contending with these problems in figuring out solutions.”

Supporting Women’s Power—and Staying Power

“In addition to all the tremendous work that is happening right now to help get women elected, we need to be doing more to support them after they get elected,” Kornberg said.

Given the structural disadvantages that women and other underrepresented groups face when they reach Congress, said said, “when it just comes to understanding how to get their job done effectively, there can be a concerted effort to really invest in helping them be the most effective lawmakers that they can.”

Addressing gender disparities in committee membership and leadership could be helped by “the institution of a requirement for more transparent and democratic processes when it comes to placing members on committees and assigning committee leadership,” said Kornberg, noting that, “along with party leadership, committee leadership is instrumental to members’ career advancement as a legislator.”

And systematic and structural approaches addressing campaign finance might “help to change the balance of power when it comes to a chamber that is also prioritizing members based on their fundraising,” since “it’s always kind of a story … about money, especially recently.” In terms of efforts that are under way, the small donor public financing program that is currently in effect in New York State, iterations of which exist in other states, could be helpful.

Along with party leadership, committee leadership is instrumental to members’ career advancement as a legislator.

Maya L. Kornberg

Recent Brennan Center work on election misinformation spread on social media suggests some means to mitigate violent and misogynistic rhetoric that can thwart women’s exercise of legislative influence and deter them from continuing in office by perpetuating harmful stereotypes and hate speech.

Intentional efforts advanced by citizens, academics, party leaders and actors across sectors can amplify women’s power—and staying power—in the halls of Congress, supporting them in their belonging as effective representatives of previously underrepresented constituencies.

“We have more women in Congress than ever before. So let’s celebrate that. … But I think that we’re missing part of the story when it actually comes to power, and power within the chamber matters if we actually want these women and other new members to be able to influence policy” for the betterment of all.

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Bonnie Stabile, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, where she founded and directs the Gender and Policy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @bstabile1.