Women Break the Gender Barrier in 2006 Elections
Democrats wrested control of the House of Representatives in yesterday's midterm elections, putting Nancy Pelosi of California in position to smash through a political glass ceiling that has kept women out of the upper echelons of power throughout U.S. history.
In addition, the Senate will have at least one more female Senator, and at least four additional Democratic women will become members of the House.
When House Democrats meet to elect their leaders next year, they are expected to promote Pelosi to become Speaker of the House, which would put her third in line for the presidency and make her the first woman to hold the position, the most powerful in the legislative branch of government. Pelosi is also a strong backer of abortion rights; if she controls the House she can be expected to put the brakes on a strategy pushed successfully by Republicans over the last dozen years to chip away at abortion rights.
Democratic control of the Senate--which depends on final results in Montana and Virginia--could prevent President Bush from putting another anti-choice justice onto the Supreme Court if a vacancy opens up.
South Dakota Abortion Ban Defeated
Meanwhile, South Dakota's statewide ban on virtually all abortions appeared on its way to defeat. Also, Roger Hunt, the state legislator who wrote the abortion ban law and funneled $750,000 in the referendum campaign, was re-elected to his House seat, defeating Democrat Mary Ann Giebink.
Dem Women Make Gains
Democratic women also made gains in both chambers of Congress on Tuesday. In the House, women will see at least four new female members, and possibly many more. Sure pickups include Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Yvette Clark of New York, Betty Sutton of Ohio and Kathy Castor of Florida. A number of other House races featuring women were too close to call.
In Illinois, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, the fighter pilot who lost both her legs in Iraq, conceded defeat just after midnight, losing her bid to take over the district that had been represented by retiring abortion foe Henry Hyde. During her concession speech, the crowd chanted: "2008, 2008."
In the Senate, women will increase their numbers by at least one. Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar beat Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy in the race for the seat left open by retiring Democrat Mark Dayton.
Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill also has a good chance of winning entry to the upper chamber. She's mounted a strong challenge to Sen. Jim Talent, a freshman Republican from Missouri. Her race was not called last night.
All Incumbent Female Senators Win
Meanwhile, all female incumbents who faced re-election to the Senate won: These were Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Hillary Clinton of New York, and Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
Republican women in the House, meanwhile, took a hit as incumbents Anne Northup of Kentucky and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut were ousted.
With Democrats in control of the House, women are in line to advance to high positions in party leadership and on committees. Four women are in line to take over control of House panels, and numerous other women are poised to control House subcommittees.
Dem Women Poised for Powerful Seats in House
Most significant, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter will likely become chair of House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters of floor debate. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of California will chair the House Administration Committee, which oversees federal elections and day-to-day operations in the chamber.
New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez is in line to rule the Small Business Committee, a panel of special significance to women because they are becoming independent entrepreneurs in disproportionate numbers.
And Rep. Jane Harman of California is next in line on the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees the intelligence community, a key position in the post-Sept. 11 security environment. It is unclear whether Harman will assume the position given her reportedly sour relationship with Pelosi.
In terms of sheer numbers, it was unclear whether 2006 will match 1992, when women nearly doubled their ranks in both chambers. That year, women picked up 19 House seats and three Senate seats, putting 47 women in the House and seven women in the Senate. Before today's election, there were 67 women in the House and 14 women in the Senate, making women 15 percent of the entire legislative branch.
The unprecedented gains of 1992 were due to a combination of factors that aren't present today, the main one being an unusually high number of open seats, the best opportunities for female political aspirants to enter Congress.
In addition, House districts are less competitive now than they were in 1992, thanks to a 2001 redistricting process that strengthened most incumbents, most of whom are male. And although there are several scandals on Capitol Hill this year, none has engaged the female electorate in the same way that the sexual harassment investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did in 1992.
Many Races Not Yet Called
Still, odds looked good on Tuesday night that women would make considerable gains. Among the races where women were running strong include Democrats Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Diane Farrell of Connecticut, Tammy Duckworth and Andrea Zinga of Illinois, Lois Murphy of Pennsylvania, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Christine Jennings of Florida, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, Darcy Burner of Washington state, Nancy Boyda of Kansas, Tessa Hafen and Jill Derby of Nevada, and Ellen Simon of Arizona.
Republicans looked sure to pick up at least one new female House member, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. But two other favorite challengers--Martha Rainville of Vermont and Joy Padgett of Ohio--lost to Democrats.
Democratic challengers who lost their races include Phyllis Busansky of Florida, Linda Stender of New Jersey and Judy Feder of Virginia. There were also several close races featuring two women. In the open-seat match-up in Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann defeated Democrat Patty Wetterling. In Colorado Republican Marilyn Musgrave defeated Democrat Angie Paccione.
Several other races still had not been called by Wednesday morning: Ohio Houses races between Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy and Republican Deborah Pryce; Democrat Victoria Wulsin and Republican Jean Schmidt; and a New Mexico House race between Democrat Patricia Madrid and Republican Heather Wilson.