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Women's History Month and the March Towards Political Parity

Representative Mae Ella Nolan, Republican of California, was the first woman to chair a House committee in 1923. A century later, the march towards political parity continues.

The month of March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. But if you look into the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. and statehouses around the country, it is obvious that 2021 is shaping up to be the year of the woman, at least when it comes to our politics.

It started, of course, with last November’s election. According to the Center for Women and American Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, “a record number of women will serve in state legislatures in 2021.” Specifically, 2,277 women are serving as state lawmakers this year, representing about 31 percent of total state legislative offices nationwide. Notably, women will represent 50 percent or more of the state legislative seats in Nevada and will hold at least 50 percent of state senate seats in the upper chambers of the Nevada, Rhode Island, and Arizona legislatures.

Beyond legislatures, women hold 95 statewide executive branch positions in the United States this year. There are nine female governors, 18 female lieutenant governors, and 68 other statewide elected officials who are women. That, too, represents about 31 percent of the total executive offices at the state level around the country.

These ratios are very similar to what we see in Congress. While women are making rapid progress, parity is still far off.

As Pew Research Center noted in January, “Women make up just over a quarter of all members of the 117th Congress – the highest percentage in U.S. history and a considerable increase from where things stood even a decade ago.” Women hold 144 of the 550 seats in the 117th Congress (representatives, senators, and delegates) – double the number they held 10 years ago during the 112th Congress. There is a partisan imbalance, however: women represent 40 percent of the House Democratic caucus and 32 percent of Senate Democratic caucus but only 14 percent of House Republicans and 16 percent of Senate Republicans.

The 2020 election, of course, also put the first woman in the White House: Vice President Kamala Harris. When he chose Harris as his running mate back in August, President Joe Biden made clear that, if elected, he wanted Harris to be a strong presence in his administration. At the time, he explained, “I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room, to always tell me the truth, which she will. Challenge my assumptions if she disagrees. Ask the hard questions. Because that’s the way we make the best decisions for the American people."

Now that Biden and Harris in office, White House officials are telegraphing Harris’ importance in several ways. As The Hill noted recently, “When White House aides speak about Biden and Harris, they will often throw in words about Harris being ‘a governing partner’ and how both the president and vice president want to do the work ‘together.’” In public communications, federal agencies and the White House routinely refer to “the Biden-Harris” administration, not just the “Biden administration.” That difference might seem slight, but traditionally administrations are known only by the name of the president.

Vice President Harris also is often at President Biden’s side during major meetings. She is reaching out to foreign leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (In fact, Vice President Harris spoke to Trudeau prior to President Biden’s virtual meeting with the prime minister last week.) Former Vice President Dick Cheney was similarly elevated when he served as second-in-command to President George W. Bush and, of course, as former President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden himself enjoyed the complete confidence of the commander in chief.

Along with Vice President Harris, there will be at least five other women in the cabinet. The list of top-level advisers includes Janet Yellen, the nation’s first female Treasury Secretary. Four other women already have been confirmed by the Senate to top posts: Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo; Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm; United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield; and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. President Biden also has tapped women to lead the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. (President Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, withdrew from consideration yesterday evening once it became clear she lacked the votes needed in the Senate to be confirmed.)

Those nominations await confirmation.

The path towards parity in the president’s cabinet began nearly a century ago. The first woman ever appointed to a cabinet position was Frances Perkins, who became President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor in 1933. Perkins had served as Industrial Commissioner in New York State prior to her service in the Roosevelt administration. She became an integral part of FDR’s cabinet – in fact she was one of only two people to remain in the cabinet throughout his elongated presidency – and helped write and implement the New Deal.

Since Perkins, there have been six other female secretaries of labor, the most for any cabinet position. There have been six United Nations ambassadors who were women and five secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services. A woman has never overseen the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs. There also has never been a female White House chief of staff.

According to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics, a total of 59 women have held 67 cabinet positions in presidential administrations, with eight women serving in two different posts. Among the 59 women, 36 were appointed by Democratic presidents and 23 were appointed by Republican presidents.

President Bill Clinton had the most balanced cabinet in terms of gender. During his second term from early 1997 to early 2001, 41 percent of cabinet and cabinet-level positions were occupied by women. (For President Biden, that percentage is currently at 24 percent.)

Women wield significant power on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue as well. In the U.S. Senate, for example, there are eight women in leadership roles:

  • Vice President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate;

  • Assistant Democratic Leader Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.);

  • Republican Conference Vice-Chair Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa);

  • Democratic Conference Vice-Chair Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.);

  • Democratic Conference Secretary Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.);

  • Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.);

  • Democratic Steering Committee Chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); and

  • Democratic Committee Outreach Vice Chair Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.).

Women also lead four committees in the Senate. In addition to their leadership roles, Sen. Stabenow leads the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, Sen. Klobuchar oversees the Rules and Administration Committee, and Sen. Murray is in charge of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Rounding out the group is Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is chair of the powerful Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

On the House side of Capitol Hill, there are 15 women in leadership, including the nation’s first female Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who is in her fourth term in that position. The most powerful Republican female in the House is Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a staunch opponent of former President Donald Trump. Rep. Cheney is a formidable lawmaker, having beat back a challenge to her leadership position earlier this year after she voted to impeach the previous commander in chief.

Women currently lead six House committees:

  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair, Appropriations Committee;

  • Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair, Financial Services Committee;

  • Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair, House Administration Committee;

  • Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair, Science, Space, and Technology Committee;

  • Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), chair, Small Business Committee; and

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair, House Oversight Committee.

These powerful women, too, build on the progress that began 100 years ago. The first woman ever to chair a House committee was Mae Ella Nolan who oversaw the Expenditures in the Post Office Department Committee from 1923 to 1925.

Nolan was a Republican from California and also was the first woman to ever succeed her husband in Congress. As House historians noted, Nolan championed a minimum-wage bill, child labor laws, and national education legislation. House historians also noted Nolan distanced “herself from the women’s rights movement with which she had a relatively cool relationship … because her core labor constituency was unsupportive.” (The Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage across the United States, had only been ratified three years before Nolan took the helm of her committee.)

Since Nolan represented California in the House, there have been more than 40 other women who have represented the Golden State in Congress, including, of course, Kamala Harris.

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