In the 2020 election cycle, an unprecedented number of women are running for Congress: So far, 643 women have filed to run for a seat in either the U.S. House or Senate, representing a more than 20 percent increase from the total number of female candidates who ran in 2018. That year set its own record, becoming the latest so-called “Year of the Woman,” a phrase originally coined in 1992.
Fittingly, this year’s milestone coincides with the 100th anniversary of the election of the 67th Congress, the first Congress since the passage of the 19th Amendment and the first to feature multiple female members of the House of Representatives. As Congress’s cardinal “Woman’s Bloc,” Reps. Alice Robertson (R-Okla.), Winnifred Huck (R-Ill.) and Mae Nolan (R-Calif.) worked to jettison the archetype of the singularly domestic “lady,” effectively setting the tone for the next century of female political participation through their work on issues including child labor, wage equality, Native American welfare, veteran relief and progressive taxation.
As one can imagine, Robertson, Huck and Nolan generated a lot of excitement when they got to Capitol Hill, with newspapers across the country heralding a new era of gender parity in Congress: “Women Legislators Are Increasing!” they announced as coverage of the Woman’s Bloc superseded even that of President Warren G. Harding. One hundred years later, news outlets are similarly covering 2020’s record-breaking numbers: “Record Number Of Women Run For Congress In 2020”; “Already, more women have won House primaries than in 2018.”
But what did electing a record number of women to the House mean 100 years ago — and what might it mean today?
By and large, Robertson, Huck and Nolan too often lacked the power to direct congressional attention to the issues that were most important to them. Assigned to secondary panels, they were denied membership on the Hill’s most powerful committees, and the legislation they introduced was seldom even considered.
While party leaders dismissed the female members of Robertson, Huck and Nolan’s generation as symbolic placeholders who would serve “unostentatiously and [depart] the Capitol quietly,” the press mercilessly scrutinized them for their looks: As the “old maid” of the group, Robertson was censured for her deficit of style — “One never knows quite what Miss Alice has on,” wrote the Washington Herald — while Nolan was fat-shamed for being “perilously near the ‘stylish stout’ stage.”
An avowed anti-feminist who opposed women’s suffrage, Robertson was probably the worst offender. Although she had capitalized on her gender during her campaign, arguing that “the women need a woman to look after [them],” Robertson did not believe that her gender should dictate or even inform her policymaking, focusing instead on fealty to her district and an ideological aversion to “big brother” government. In 1921, she certified this aversion by opposing the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, which appropriated funds for prenatal, maternal and infant health-care education. While her predecessor Jeanette Rankin (R-Mont.), elected in 1916 and the first and only woman to serve in Congress before the “Woman’s Bloc,” had vocally championed the bill as a way to combat heightened maternal mortality rates, Robertson stamped it as a dangerous intrusion that she feared would precipitate “an autocratic, undefined, practically uncontrolled” form of government.
Once in office, Nolan too tried to distance herself from the women’s rights movement. As she defended her role as the first woman to chair a congressional committee, maintaining that “a capable woman is a better representative than an incapable man,” she also believed that she owed “nothing to the women as far as her election [was] concerned.” Soon after she took office, she made it clear she had no interest in fraternizing with women’s suffrage groups. Claiming her workload was too onerous, she also left the Committee on Women Suffrage, her departure representing another deviation from Rankin, who had served as one of the Committee’s ranking members.
Of the “three Lady members,” Huck was by far the most sympathetic to women’s rights. During her tenure, she sought to secure citizenship rights for married women, laying important groundwork for the Cable Act of 1922, which restored citizenship to American-born women who had married noncitizen husbands. As a pacifist and mother of four, Huck was also the architect of a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a popular vote to authorize American involvement in any future international conflict. Framing the amendment as “the plan of the American women,” she boldly addressed the House floor, presaging a future in which “more mothers [would] be elected to aid in conducting the affairs of the state.”
Nevertheless, as evidenced by the rhetoric she employed, Huck’s commitment to American women did not come without its limitations or caveats. In anchoring her agenda in the “heart and feelings and sympathies of a mother,” Huck favored legislation that addressed women’s issues within the context of their traditional roles, largely prioritizing the needs of married women and mothers before those of unmarried women.
It should be noted, moreover, that Robertson, Huck and Nolan were all White and, like many members of the “First Generation,” tended to focus predominantly on the concerns of White women. Similarly to the suffrage movement — which secured voting rights for White women, but not for women of color — it would take years for women of color to have their voices represented on Capitol Hill and decades for them to have a seat at the table: Congress’s first woman of color, Patsy Takemoto Mink (D-Hawaii), was not elected until 1965, and Congress’s first Black female member, Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), was not elected until 1968.
In size as well as substance, women’s representation has significantly changed since the days of the 67th Congress. In “fervently” believing in the importance of their own congressional roles, women have narrowed the historical chasm between merely “descriptive” and actually “substantive” representation, making their gender a seemingly more informative proxy for their legislative behavior.
At the start of the 116th Congress, women’s “descriptive” and “substantive” representation seemed to coalesce as Congress swore in a record 131 female members, welcoming the largest — and, importantly, the most diverse — class of women in history. With the exception of one female candidate in the House, the insurgent “female wave” was entirely blue, coinciding with the Democrats’ newfound majority in the House as well as a groundswell of anti-Trumpism among female voters.
According to Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Democratic women in the 116th Congress have been able to wield “even more power to enact and inform the agenda” than their predecessors. Over the past two years, they have introduced legislation related to domestic violence, reproductive rights, climate change and wage equality; they have also launched a number of distaff caucuses, including the Black Maternal Health Caucus and the “Mom’s in the House” Caucus.
With their numbers having fallen precipitously after the 2018 midterms, Republican congresswomen have too worked to become more explicit and strategic in their approach to gender. In jettisoning their party’s long-standing aversion to identity politics, Republican congresswomen have become more outspoken about women’s issues — the most memorable example perhaps being Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)’s powerful personal testimony on sexual assault in the military — and have joined Democratic women in co-sponsoring several pieces of women’s rights legislation.
Despite these signs of progress, congresswomen are still trailed by many of the same challenges and contradictions that plagued the careers of Robertson, Huck and Nolan. Lamenting the persistence of “old stereotypes,” female members from both parties claim that Congress remains an “old boys’ club” in which women are still scrutinized for their appearance, regularly interrupted and meanly denigrated by their male colleagues.
Two years after the latest “Year of the Woman,” the bulk of congressional power remains concentrated in men’s hands, with male members collectively occupying more than 70 percent of all leadership roles in the House and the Senate and chairing more than 80 percent of all standing, select, special and joint committees. With both parties valuing seniority over inclusion, writes Jennifer Steinhauer in “The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress,” many of the freshman female members of the 116th Congress feel like they have been “unilaterally boxed out of all the key committee assignments,” depriving them of the resources to accomplish their goals while leaving them more vulnerable to the political pressures of incumbency.
When we see the headlines heralding another imminent “Year of the Woman,” it can be tempting to get excited. But as we reflect on the legacies of Robertson, Huck and Nolan — and consider the nuances of the 116th Congress — it’s important to be realistic. History has made it clear that the sheer number of women in Congress may not always be the best proxy for women’s advancement and equality; furthermore, “female political participation” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Despite the pressure to course correct after 2018, Republican congresswomen are still averse to focusing on their gender, framing it as more a component than a “primary message” of their political identity, said CAWP’s Dittmar. Reflecting the legacies established by Robertson, Huck and Nolan, they continue to eschew identity politics and stick to the party line, exhibiting nothing “out-of-step on anything gender-related.” Perhaps as a result, their work on women’s issues remains relatively infrequent, undisruptive and figurative: According to data from GovTrack, Republican women have served as lead sponsor on just 10 of the 133 pieces of women’s rights legislation introduced so far during the 116th Congress.
Republican women’s commitment to party over gender has continued in this current election. Of the 107 Republican women still in the running for a seat in the 117th Congress as of Wednesday, at least 91 have explicitly endorsed and/or openly campaigned for Donald Trump, a man with a long and extensively documented history of harassing and denigrating women. According to Dittmar, the vast majority of these candidates have tried not to highlight but rather dissociate themselves from their gender, marketing themselves as “stereotypically masculine” fighters who are “tough,” “relentless” and “scrappy” while underscoring their allegiance to Trump as their most relevant and compelling selling point.
“I think sometimes it’s a cop-out if we concentrate on a trait rather than a whole person,” Beth Van Duyne, a Trump-endorsed candidate running in South Carolina, told NPR in June. “I like to think we see beyond gender.”
As we reflect on the centennial anniversary of the 67th Congress and the enduring legacies of Robertson, Huck and Nolan, we are faced with a choice: Either we continue to look at gender as a “descriptive” box to be checked like “a discount on account of [our] petticoats,” as Robertson famously said, or as a catalyst for real, inclusive and substantive representation. The more we discount the importance of gender as a driving component of such representation, the longer we will continue to tokenize female members as expendable and maneuverable placeholders — as show things who serve “unostentatiously and [depart] the Capitol quietly,” like Robertson, Huck and Nolan did all those years ago.