The dearth of Republican women in Congress was in the spotlight at the State of the Union when President Donald Trump praised the historic gains made in the 116th Congress, gains driven by Democratic victories and GOP losses.
The number of House Republican women slipped in 2019 down from 23 in the previous congress to 13 now. And only one woman, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, holds a top House leadership position in the GOP conference.
Democrats, decked in white to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Congress voting to grant women the right to vote, were a little confused about the praise from Trump, but thundered applause for the president.
“I was like ‘It’s weird you’re bringing this up,’” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi about Trump’s recognition of the women lawmakers.
“I liked it when he acknowledged that it was the largest number of women. He forgot to acknowledge that it’s only 15 Republicans and 91 Democratic women in the Congress of the United States in the House of Representatives,” Pelosi told reporters as she exited the Capitol Tuesday night. (Pelosi’s numbers count delegates and Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner.)
The Republican women applauded when Trump said that too, Rep. Susan Brooks said, noting the record number of women in Congress is a positive thing regardless of which party they hail from.
“It was a lighter moment, and it was more of a fun moment,” the Indiana Republican said.“But I was pleased quite frankly that the president acknowledged that we were at a new historic high for women. I thought that was great for him to acknowledge, and of course he acknowledged it by turning to the Democrat side.”
The moment served as visual confirmation of how few GOP women there are in Congress — not that such a demonstration was needed. Republicans are acutely aware of the situation
“It’s obvious,” Brooks said. “Hopefully it’s sending a message to everyone on my side of the aisle that we’ve got to work even harder at finding women at all levels of government to step up and consider running for Congress and to find women who have maybe never run for anything, like myself, to consider running. We’ve got I hope a strong movement. We can’t — and it shouldn’t be just the Democrats who have those really strong numbers. It should be our party as well.”
As recruitment chair for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Brooks said she is out talking to women and men “to try to bring more diversity to our party in a whole bunch of ways.”
New York Republican Elise Stefanik recruited more than 100 women as the first female head of recruitment at the NRCC last cycle. But only one of them prevailed, with many failing to make it through their primaries. She stepped back from the NRCC and has shifted her focus to supporting women candidates at the primary stages and building a framework for success. She says that electing more Republican women would be more reflective of the public.
“What I’ve been focused on is providing support earlier and an infrastructure and a pipeline for women who choose to run, so they get the support and backing that they need to win the primary and then general election,” Stefanik said Wednesday.
“We lost some very talented women members who either ran for higher office or lost this past election cycle,” she said.
But there’s one thing she hopes to make clear to voters and potential candidates.
“The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on women,” said Stefanik.
She was the only noticeable Republican to wear white, joining the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage. The Democratic women said the invite was bipartisan but Stefanik’s participation stuck out on the GOP side.
Some Republican women thought the Democrats were being selfish in taking that moment to applaud while not acknowledging other highlights of Trump’s speech.
“Things my Democrat women colleagues wouldn’t clap for at #StateOfTheUnion2019 tonight: America, freedom, free enterprise, law enforcement heroes, record low unemployment for women & minorities, the right of babies to live,” Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, the highest ranking GOP women, tweeted Tuesday night after the address. “Things they did clap for: themselves.”
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, one of the few Republican women in a committee leadership position as ranking member of the Education and Labor panel, said the moment showed Democrats’ “egos.”
“I did find it intriguing that they sat on their hands and wouldn’t honor the World War II veterans, wouldn’t honor the police force, wouldn’t honor children surviving cancer and all of that stuff and then honored themselves. That was a pretty interesting response to it. They applauded themselves.”
Foxx said she wasn’t concerned about the optics of the moment highlighting the disparity between Republican women and Democratic women and that Trump wasn’t trying to call attention to the GOP losses.
“He just pointed out that this was a record number of women in the Congress,” she said. “That is a statement of fact, and it is something to celebrate.”
Democrats may have vastly more women in their caucus, but they are still working to increase their numbers in 2020.
“We’re not done. We’re going to have a big goal in the next cycle,” Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, chair of the Democratic Women’s Working Group, said. “We’re going to go for at least 100.”
Trump’s acknowledgement of the record number of women during the State of the Union was “exhilarating” for Democrats, Frankel said.
“It was funny, because, talk about somebody walking into it,” she said. “I think he thought we were applauding him. We sort of were, because it was because of him that we got this majority and we got all these women.”
But that wasn’t the heart of it, she acknowledged: “To the tell you the truth, we were applauding ourselves.”
Trump looked at the Republicans throughout the entire speech, except for that moment, Frankel said.
“That’s the only time he really looked at us, because let’s face it, there’s not too many women on the other side,” she said.
Frankel said she hopes the moment helped draw attention to the GOP’s women problem “because I think the whole institution would be better if there were more women on both sides.”
Brooks and Frankel both expressing interest in more congressional women, regardless of party, is not surprising. They co-chaired the Bipartisan Women’s Caucus together last Congress, working together on legislation like a measure to protect young athletes from sexual abuse following the Olympic gymnastics scandal.
“We find things to work on together,” Brooks said on her way to House votes Wednesday. “And as a matter of fact I’m going in to see if I can get some women to join me on a trip to Guatemala to study what’s going on down there relative to women and children.”
Simone Pathe contributed to this report.