The Church Lady Goes to Washington: Addressing the Under-Representation of Women in the Republican Party

By Alixandra B. Yanus

[Image credit: The Church Lady and Donald Trump]

In the 2018 midterm elections, record numbers of women ran for U.S. local, state, and national offices. In U.S. House of Representatives, Senate, and gubernatorial elections alone, almost 600 women ran in primary elections; 274 of these women advanced to general elections, and 125 were elected. The 2020 cycle appears to be poised to feature much of the same, with women responding to a combination of factors, including backlash to President Donald Trump and his policies, inspiration from those who ran in 2018, and the record number of women candidates in the Democratic presidential primary field.

What is especially interesting about the 2020 field is the increasing number of Republican women who have declared their candidacy and are considered serious candidates. Almost 200 such women emerged by the end of 2019, more than double the number at the same time in the 2018 cycle. One look at the partisan composition of the women in the U.S. House of Representatives underscores how remarkable this trend is – of the 110 women serving in the 116th Congress, 81 (74%) are Democrats. The modern Republican Party, clearly, has had its challenges in electing women.

Scholars have posited several explanations for this gender gap in representation. One perspective contends that there are so-called “female political subcultures” or “women friendly districts” where women are more likely to participate in politics. These areas are characterized by their socio-demographic commonalities; for example, they are more diverse, liberal, urban, and educated – characteristics that tend to favor the Democratic Party. Recent research that I co-authored with Nicholas Pyeatt at Penn State Altoona published in Politics and Religion adds to this discussion by demonstrating that women state legislative candidates are less likely to run and win general election contests in districts with greater percentages of religious adherents, especially evangelical Protestants.; the same appears to be true in U.S. House of Representatives races. Interestingly, however, if women appear on the ballot, other studies reveal that women candidates face no penalty from co-partisan voters – even the most religiously devout – on election day. Taken together, these studies suggest that a big part of the Republican Party’s particular problem with the representation of women may lie not in voter prejudices, but in candidate recruitment and identification, particularly in the most religious areas of the country – many of which also are among the most solidly Republican.

This seeming contradiction may, in fact, provide an opportunity for the Republican Party and a potential first step to closing the partisan gender gap in representation. If even the most devout Republican voters will support women candidates on election day, the problem is one not with electoral prejudices on the demand side, but the pool of potential candidates on the supply side. Simply put, it appears that women are less likely to be recruited to run for office in highly religious areas.

On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Evangelical churches, in particular, advocate for the maintenance of traditional “separate spheres” roles, with men responsible for public life and leadership, and women for home and family. On the other, it is counter to centuries of overt and covert political action by religious women, perhaps most visibly by the Methodist Episcopal Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Under the guise of “home protection,” the WCTU’s hundreds of thousands of members led the charge to reform local, state, and national laws on a diverse range of issues, from education reform to tobacco sales to minors to its most significant accomplishment, prohibition of the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol in the United States. Moreover, research documents that churches are the only civic organizations in the United States in which women participate at higher rates than men, often cultivating precisely the fundraising, organizational, and civic leadership skills necessary to run a successful political campaign. It should be no surprise, then, that one study revealed that Republican women state legislators were the most likely of all gender-party dyads to have been active in their church leadership; 70 percent of Republican women legislators reported engaging in this activity.

Thus, as the Republican Party looks to expand its appeal to voters, perhaps party leaders need look no further than the woman in the pew next to them on Sunday morning to find their next school board member or state legislator. Hosting candidate training events at religious venues may be another option for reaching this audience, provided church leaders are supportive. With a small, but growing, movement in churches to bring attention to issues of gender (in)equality, a growing percentage of women in cloth and lay ministries, and pressure on both parties to appeal to an increasingly diverse America, the climate has rarely been more ripe for an innovative solution to the Republican Party’s “woman problem.”

Alixandra B. Yanus is an Associate Professor of Political Science at High Point University. She has published numerous book chapters and articles in journals such as PS: Political Science and Politics, Politics & Gender, Politics, Groups & Identities, and Politics and Religion. Her current research focuses on how political and institutional contexts affect the participation of women in society and in government.

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