ONE HUNDRED AND ONE has a significance beyond Cruella de Vil and her evil trade–it’s the number of women in the 113th Congress. Eighty one currently serve in the House (including three delegates), and 20 in the Senate, making female membership 18.7% of Congress’s total composition. This is a record, up from its low point of 0% before 1916, when Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress.
A triumph though this may be for women, a victory it is not. Victory calls for something completed, a mission accomplished, and female representation in Congress is neither. Over half the country is female compared to under a fifth of Congress. As Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson put it, “by any stretch of the imagination women are still woefully underrepresented in the halls of Congress.”
Representation, however, is an ambiguous standard and subject to debate. Would women be fairly represented if half of Congress was composed of women ardently bent on passing “anti-women” legislation? It’s with this sort of question in mind that prompted Toni Morison to call Bill Clinton “the first black president.” (See then-Senator Obama’s response to this claim).
If representation were to be taken literally, as it usually is, it follows that the chief goal for women would be to elect more women, regardless of ideology. This is precisely the aim of More Women in Congress Super PAC, whose mission, according to founder Shannon Meade, is “made clear in the name.” Candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes (Democrat running for Senate, Ky.) and Michelle Nunn (Republican running for Senate, Ga.) are both target beneficiaries for Meade’s funding, and together illustrate her bipartisan (or nonpartisan, given that Meade is “not loyal to a party,”) mission. The Super PAC is less than one week old, and was apparently inspired by Stephen Colbert.
Advocating on behalf of women is nothing new in Washington. A stroll past the White House evokes images of suffragists who picketed at its gates. But advocating on behalf of women candidates with no regard to their political views seems a novelty, at least to this blogger. It also seems a rather dubious plan, with potentially adverse results. A case can be made that electing women who aren’t totally committed to women’s issues would hinder progress in the long term. Then again, their mere presence may be the most forceful of motivators.
There’s a bumper sticker that quips: “A woman’s place is in the House…the Senate, and the Oval Office.” If Meade and others can successfully stack the first two, perhaps the third will follow. And if the presidency comes first – as some speculate it will in 2016 – More Women in Congress would likely gain from this as well. Whether or not Meade achieves her goals, her example belies the popular belief that time itself will cure Congress of being old, white, and male. It takes organization, too, and plenty of cash on hand.