The midterm elections made one thing clear: Republicans have officially lost their grip on women voters. Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have long struggled with the idea of working to increase the number of women in politics.
In reaction to the “identity politics” of the left, they insist ideas and policies are all that matter, and that sex is largely irrelevant. The right is wrong. A person’s sex matters more than most are willing to admit, and a shift in perspective is needed if we want a diversity of perspectives and sensible policies moving forward.
At last, it seems some are waking up to the party’s “women problem.” Retiring Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview that the GOP needs to “step up its game” on “younger candidates, female candidates, and candidates of color.” Rep. Steve Scalise threw his support solidly behind Rep. Elise Stefanik’s effort to get more women elected to public office, tweeting “We need more talented women like you in Congress. I’m proud to support your efforts.”
Sex Is an Important Component of Human Life
It’s about time. Too often, Republicans overlook that politics is not one-dimensional. It’s a combination of performance––the policies one stands for and the actions taken in public office––and perception, or the image of a party or candidate. Sex matters on both fronts.
Our sex by no means determines our ideas; none of us is defined by some simple set of identities. But sex does help define our experiences and can influence how we perceive, prioritize, and approach critical policies, from health care to workplace regulations to environmental reforms.
Most on the right believe that sex differences are “hardwired” to a significant degree. Sex differences in personal preferences, education choices, and life priorities are not simply the result of socialization in our society, but natural divergences driven by biology. In fact, policy wonks on the right point to sex differences to explain disparities like the wage gap, arguing that free but divergent choices of men and women, not sexism, explains nearly all of the discrepancy.
Strangely, however, this understanding of sexual differences goes out the window for elections and leadership. Conservatives and Republicans are often blind to the ways sex may affect a voter’s perception of political leaders and policies, and a political leader’s approach to addressing a given policy problem. To put this into context, in 2018, the Center for Responsive Politics found that women contributed just over $19 million to Republican women congressional candidates, while Democratic women gave more than $159 million. What’s more, they gave more to their female candidates than to male candidates.
By all means, I want women and men committed to constitutionally limited small government. But conservatives need to invest more in electing women, because it is likely to improve their performance. Women bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. We face no shortage of extraordinarily difficult problems in the realm of politics. But we are more likely to solve these problems when our political leadership brings a diversity of experiences and perspectives to bear on them.
Image Matters to Voters
In politics, performance is intimately tied up with perception. Image matters. Brand matters. Who voters see in political leadership matters. Nearly 80 percent of the women set to serve in the 116th Congress will be Democrats. (On the state level, the midterms outcome is better––roughly 44 percent of women officeholders are now Republican.) This divide becomes even sharper when we consider women of color––43 women of color will serve in the next Congress, but only one is a Republican.
Democrats can take identity politics too far, suggesting a woman should support a candidate because of their shared sex, or that she should take a certain position on abortion or health care simply because she is female. But the right needs to make its own course correction.
Women voters have been slipping away for years. In the recent midterm elections, Democrats won the women’s vote by a whopping 19 points, with 59 percent of college-educated women supporting Democrats, officially securing the women’s vote.
But the fact is they deserve to win. The GOP’s loss of women voters isn’t the result of a single misstep. The party has failed to engage consistently or effectively with women on important issues like health care and paid leave. Insensitive comments and candidates who appear crass, dismissive, or even abusive toward women certainly don’t help.
But the problem has been made worse by a conspicuous shortage of Republican women lawmakers at the national level. Democrats can thank their progressive feminist allies, who have spent years (and tens of millions of dollars) researching, training, and investing in women candidates. Republicans rely on a few women leaders from time to time––Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers or Sen. Susan Collins, for example––but electing women leaders has always been an afterthought at best.
Perhaps now that Republicans have hit rock bottom with female voters, they’ll begin to take the issue of electing more women more seriously. It’s time to make a real effort at identifying, training, and advancing women in the party. Otherwise, the nation will move further toward a political culture in which one’s sex doesn’t just influence our politics, but determines them.