During Donald Trump’s wild speech last Thursday night, as he listed what he viewed as his successes in the election he lost, he made a point to highlight the small number of women who will be joining the Republican ranks in Congress. “This was also the year of the Republican woman. More Republican women were elected to Congress than ever before. That’s a great achievement,” he said.
Along with the defeated Trump and his former adviser Kellyanne Conway, Republicans are calling 2020 the “year of the Republican woman, pointing to the fact that Republican women are almost doubling their paltry numbers in the House and hung on to their Senate seats as proof. The day after election night, Conway congratulated the Republican women who won their House races on Twitter. “You Go, Girls!” she wrote. Elise Stefanik, the House member who has made it her mission to increase the ranks of Republican women in Congress, described these gains as a “huge success” on Fox News. “The story of the 2020 Congressional elections is, this is the year of the Republican woman,” Stefanik said.
Conservative news outlets joined the chorus, spinning these victories as evidence of a sea change. It was painted as an “unprecedented wave” by the New York Post. According to the Federalist, Republican women “made massive gains,” and are “on their way to gaining even more political ground within their party and around the nation.”
That Republican women were and will continue to be a rarity in the House and Senate, far outpaced by their Democratic counterparts when it comes to representation, didn’t matter. (According to the Center for American Women and Politics, there will be twice as many Democratic women in the Senate as Republicans in the new Congress, and more than three times as many in the House.) What mattered was the spin, and the message was obvious—the Republican Party isn’t sexist, despite championing policies that hurt women, just look at all of these women who won their races! “The Republican Party is growing,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy crowed, pointing to his party’s slight gains in the House, and noting that “every one of our winning candidates is either a woman, a minority, and/or a veteran.”
But we have, of course, heard this line before. Almost every election season since 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman,” has been filled with claims that women will boldly increase their numbers in Congress. And it’s not only the Democrats who make those assertions—1992 was also supposed to be a banner year for Republican women, as was, notably, 2010. But while Democratic women have steadily made gains in both the House and Senate since 1992, with 2018 seeing a sharp uptick in their numbers in the House, the same can’t be said for Republicans, who saw their numbers drastically decline during the last midterm election season. And with their victories, Republican women have barely caught up to where they stood in Congress in 2006, the previous high water mark for representation.
But this reality hasn’t prevented Republican leaders from parroting the narrative that Republican women won this year, and won big. And putting the question of representation aside, there shouldn’t be much to celebrate when two of the women that Republicans are adding to the House are Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, two rightwing wackos who have expressed admiration and support for QAnon in the recent past. For all that Republicans decry so-called identity politics, they clearly have no qualms deploying the shallowest interpretation of feminism, celebrating the optics of a few more (white) women in power who will do their best to undermine women’s freedom.
We’ll see what happens in 2022. But if history is any indication, the “Year of the Republican Woman” will turn out, once again, to be merely wishful thinking.