Deborah Pryce

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Following on the heels of House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi’s historic election last year to the Democratic Party’s second-ranking post, several Republican women are gaining traction in their efforts to break into the upper echelons of the GOP.

Ohio Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce–who does not hew to the party’s anti-abortion stance–appears to have locked up a three-way race for the GOP conference chair which will be the party’s fourth-ranking office in the House of Representatives, if the Republicans retain control of Congress in November. If Pryce beats her rivals, Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Jim Ryun of Kansas, she will become the highest ranking Republican woman in history.

“Republican politics needs to reflect Republicanism in its entirety,” said Pryce, currently the most senior Republican woman in the House of Representatives.

“There are an awful lot of women Republicans and we need to make the world aware of that,” she said. “When the average voter looks at both parties, they currently see many more women involved with the Democratic Party. That can change, that must change and this is one step that will help realize that change.”

At this point, several months before the caucus-wide election, Pryce has earned the support of at least 124 members of the 223-member caucus. As the current vice chair of the conference and a member of the powerful rules committee, Pryce has also forged strong alliances with her party’s leaders, including Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas.

Meanwhile, two women lawmakers, Reps. Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, both anti-abortion, are competing to succeed Pryce. Hart and Cubin are running against Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia in a race that at this point is too close to call.

GOP women suffered a minor setback earlier this year when Illinois Rep. Judy Biggert dropped her bid to succeed Cubin as conference secretary. Her decision left California Rep. John Doolittle unopposed for the post.

Republicans Take First Steps Toward Revamping Image

Pryce’s supporters contend that she will help change the image of the Grand Old Party from an old boys club to a more inclusive and tolerant association that better represents the diversity of the party within the caucus and across the country.

Many believe the preponderance of white men in the GOP’s top leadership positions has prompted women and minority voters to defect to the Democratic and Independent Parties in increasing numbers. The phenomenon threatens to downsize the ranks of Republicans in Congress in future elections and perhaps hand control of Congress to the Democratic Party in November. The threat looms ever larger as women and minorities become a more populous and more vocal part of the voting population.

Some Republicans hope to put a stop to that trend, in part by electing Pryce to serve in the highly visible position of the House GOP’s chief communicator. Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, the Republican Party’s only African American member, currently holds the position but will retire in January.

“Yesterday’s party isn’t good enough. We need to build tomorrow’s GOP,” 32 Republican members of Congress, including 24 men, wrote in a July letter to their colleagues to urge support for Pryce’s campaign. “Deborah Pryce is a spokesperson who embodies the diversity of the Republican Party.”

Pat Carpenter, executive director of the WISH List, a group dedicated to electing pro-choice Republican women to Congress that has endorsed Pryce, agreed that electing women to top positions in the party hierarchy “would go a long way to saying a lot about the party, good, positive things.” But Pryce’s election would probably mean more for “the future of the GOP than the present,” said Marshall Wittmann, a scholar at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

He adds that the change would mean a significant change on Election Day because the faces of Republican Party are dominated by Hastert, DeLay and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott.

Democrats Have Made More Progress, But Barely

Wittmann added that Democrats have made more progress in integrating their ranks, a factor that could overshadow more modest gains made by Republican women. In the House, Pelosi, the California Democrat, made history earlier this year when she became the first woman to become minority whip. She could make history again if the Democrats gain control of the House, she is likely to be a candidate for majority leader and perhaps speaker.

Aside from Pelosi, a number of Democratic women in the House and Senate hold leadership offices, including Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, assistant to the Democratic leader; Conference Secretary Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland; Deputy Whip Sen. Barbara Boxer of California; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Nita Lowey of New York and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.

Women hold fewer leadership positions in the Republican Party, although neither party can boast anything close to equal representation within its party leadership teams, on committees or in their respective caucuses. The 60 women lawmakers–42 Democrats and 18 Republicans–account for about 14 percent of the House.

A number of Republican women have nonetheless made strong attempts to break through the proverbial glass ceiling. Elizabeth Dole, for example, sought her party’s presidential nomination in 2000 and is now running a strong campaign for senator from North Carolina. And Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Washington state Republican, served as conference vice chair in the late 1990s before making a bid in 1998, becoming the first woman of either party to run for majority leader. She lost to Armey.

Nevertheless, Wittmann said achievements by Democratic women outshine those made by Republican women.

“Pelosi will be primarily the story,” he said. “And she is also in line potentially to be the first woman speaker, but Pryce has a few steps on the ladder before she reaches that point.”

Women Have Checkered Past in the GOP

While the GOP leadership team seems to be cautiously opening its arms to women, party leaders have at the same time blocked women from making inroads within the party.

At the January 2000 beginning of the 107th Congress, Republican leaders caused a stir when they passed over two women who were vying to chair House committees. There are currently no women who chair committees and only a small handful of women have ever assumed that mantle in the past.

Nonetheless, GOP leaders skipped over New Jersey Rep. Marge Roukema, then first in line to chair the newly-formed financial services committee and, instead, tapped Ohio Rep. Michael Oxley. The move, widely perceived as a snub to women lawmakers, prompted Roukema to retire after 11 terms in office.

At the same time, New York Rep. Sue Kelly and Illinois Rep. Donald Manzullo were vying to chair the small business committee. But Hastert supported Manzullo, convincing his colleagues to hand him the committee gavel instead of his female rival.

At the state level, Republican leaders irked the women’s community when they forced acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift to drop out of the race for governor to clear the field for their favored candidate, Mitt Romney.

And while President Bush scored points with the women’s community by appointing a number of women to prominent positions in his administration, he nonetheless tapped far fewer than his predecessor did to lower-level jobs.

Consequently, political observers suggest that gains made by Republican women in this year’s House leadership races may not register in the public conscience.

“This is not a radical change. This is a modest change,” said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

“Politically, it’s only sensible that the Republicans will try to broaden their appeal to women. Progress has been incremental, and even some of their own leaders are concerned and impatient with the pace of progress.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

Congresswoman Deborah Pryce:

Barbara Cubin, U.S. Congresswoman: