‘Silent’ Hattie Carraway, the first woman elected to the senate, took the floor to speak less than once a year, famously stating that, ‘I hadn’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.’ Senator Carraway held her senate seat for fourteen years after being appointed by the Governor of Arkansas to fill her late husband’s seat in 1931, tactfully exploiting the ‘window’s mandate’ where wives assumed their deceased husband’s positions until a more suitable male candidate could be found. Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s Republican primary challenger remarked that the stakes of being a senator in 1940 were simply too high for a woman, remarking that, ‘A flick of the wrist and a smile won’t do it.’ Fortunately, quite a few things have changed since then.
Women currently hold twenty seats in the US Senate. In the 2016 senatorial elections, female candidates are heading the most contested races: five out of seven competitive Democratic challengers to Republican seats are women. Democrats need to gain four seats in the next election to win back the Senate if Hillary Clinton is elected, and five if Donald Trump is. If the Democrats are able to retake the Senate this November, it will be because female candidates propelled them to victory. If all these candidates are successful, women will encompass a historic twenty-five per cent of seats and will make up forty-four per cent of senate Democrats.
The increasingly misogynist rhetoric of the campaign trail could ironically be the reason for these women’s victories. Donald Trump’s tumultuous candidacy, and the recent slew of women coming forward to claim that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them, has left a bad taste in both Democratic and Republican women’s mouths. 70 per cent of women now have an unfavourable opinion of Trump, and in polls of women voters Hillary Clinton has a sixteen to twenty point lead over her Republican rival. This dilemma has renewed talk of a Republican ‘war on women,’ something that a majority of senate Republicans have attempted to avoid by walking a careful line between condemning and endorsing their controversial nominee. Trump has placed Republican incumbents facing re-election in a precarious situation. A leaked memo from National Republican Senatorial Committee director Ward Baker advised candidates not to dwell on Trump’s ‘wacky’ comments about women, saying, ‘Don’t go near this ground other than to say that your wife or daughter is offended by what Trump said’ and to distance and isolate him with condemnation to maintain a female friendly image for voters.
The fact that Republicans have largely failed to recruit female candidates does not help their case. As the party has shifted further to the right in the past decade, the trend of the GOP electing moderate women has declined: the proportion of female Republicans in Congress has stagnated at 10 per cent since 2000, while female Democrats have continued to increase in proportion. The Republicans have failed to establish successful recruiting machines like Emily’s List, which endorses and funds pro-choice Democratic women in congressional races. In the meantime, women are becoming more and more likely to vote Democrat, a trend that has persisted since 1992. Groups like Emily’s List are exploiting the increasing partisanism of American women by imagining them as a single voting bloc, running campaigns like ‘Women Can Stop Trump.’ If Democrats are ‘playing the woman card’, they are certainly doing it effectively.
Despite the prominence of women in this year’s senatorial elections, women in the Senate have faced their own barriers to gain respect and recognition from their male colleagues. Only forty-four females have ever held seats in the gilded Senate chamber, and ‘boys club’ mentality has largely stubbornly persisted. Until Senator Chuck Schumer intervened in 2008, the senate swimming pool was male-only for the simple reason that certain senators preferred to swim naked. The female bathroom featured only two stalls before its 2013 renovation, making things quite awkward for its twenty inhabitants. Some remnants of the boy’s club have been less trivial and more shocking. In the 1990s, Senator Patty Murray reported being fondled in the elevator by the then elderly Senator Strom Thurmond. His predatory ways were apparently so legendary that his female colleagues routinely avoided being alone with him at all costs.
A 2010 Vogue profile of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand perhaps best encapsulates the social barriers that female politicians face in America. After copious notes were made of Gillibrand’s attire, as well as her ‘pale blue eyes and perfectly coiffed hair’, the reporter pressed the senator on how much weight she had lost since delivering her two children, informing her that ‘the readers of Vogue will want to know this.’ Voters will be elated to learn that the Senator has returned to wearing a size 4 to 6.
Despite the progress that has come with women’s increased profile in the senate, the United States is a long way from gender parity. The possibility of twenty-five women in the senate is a far cry from equal representation, and there is certainly a long way to go before the media stops commenting on ‘perfectly coiffed hair’ and treats female politicians with the same dignity accorded to their male peers. The rise of Trump has demonstrated how toxic misogyny can seep into the political rhetoric of mainstream politics, and has reopened a fraught debate on the GOP’s gender problem. In an election environment where every elected Republican has had to answer to a nominee that has referred to women as ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’, it is not far-fetched to conclude that American women may be forming a more unified, left-leaning bloc. Come November, perhaps the Senate will have to add another stall to the women’s bathroom.