Women make up 29 percent of today’s Congress. That’s huge progress since 1916 when the number of women senators and representatives was zero. In 1917, Janette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. We should celebrate firsts like Rankin’s and like Mae Ella Nolan’s becoming the first woman to chair a congressional committee in 1923. We should honor Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Juanita Millender-McDonald, and Nydia Velázquez, who in 2007 became the first congresswomen of color to chair congressional committees. But we can’t let these firsts cloud our understanding of where the power lies in Congress.
Despite holding 29 percent of the seats in today’s Congress, women have only 17 percent of committee leadership positions (both chairs and ranking members.) In fact, in the 118th Congress, the chairs of House committees include more men named Michael than women of any name.
This isn’t just a matter of titles. In Congress, the committee system is where much of the legislative action happens, and committee chairs call many of the shots. They determine which issues to study, which bills get hearings, and which witnesses testify. Committee chairs have control over their committees’ budget, staff, and agendas. As a result of their power of over the committee process, a key stage in bill passage, they have an enormous advantage over the rest of Congress in getting the bills they introduce signed into law. These benefits make it easier for a committee chair to be an effective legislator and to build the kind of profile that appeals to voters and donors and can keep someone in office. It should go without saying that women ought to have full access to these positions.
But a hundred years have passed since Nolan became the first woman to chair a committee, and women in Congress still don’t have full representation among committee chairs. Why?
From the little we know about the selection process, women members of Congress are at a disadvantage. The steering committees of the two parties choose the committee chairs (or the ranking members, depending on which party is in power) and committee membership. As I discuss in my book on congressional committees, the steering committees—which are made up of the party’s leaders and other prominent party members—don’t make their criteria or processes public, but we know that multiple factors are at play, such as members’ fundraising records, personal relationships and advocacy within the party, and party unity (i.e., voting with the party).
The steering committees’ emphasis on fundraising takes many women in Congress out of the running for chair positions. Women and people of color tend to rely more on small donations to fund their campaigns than on giant contributions from PACs and megadonors. This is an obstacle in the contemporary American fundraising system. Women raised $500,000 less, on average, than their male counterparts in 67 competitive congressional races in 2018. Women of color, on average, raised less than all other House candidates in general elections from 2012 through 2018.
Furthermore, research shows that when steering committees select committee membership, they’re less likely to grant women’s preferences for committees than men’s. Historically, being on certain committees, such as Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce, has been perceived as beneficial to fundraising and developing a national image, including building a case for higher office. Of course, committees’ perceived prestige ebb and flow over time. But given the centrality of committees in the legislative process, when women do not get their preferred committee assignment, it has negative repercussions for their work in Congress.
The obstacles facing women entering and trying to rise in the committee system are profound, but there are ways to create a more equitable process. When deciding future committee leadership, the parties’ steering committees should ensure the demographics of committee leadership positions are representative of their caucus in the chamber and that positions on key committees are distributed equitably.
The parties should also work on removing the barriers in the campaign finance system that disadvantage women and people of color. They have a harder time raising money for competitive campaigns to get into Congress, and then if they win a seat, that same obstacle puts them at the back of the line for committee leadership positions. Reforms to campaign finance will help elect more diverse leaders as well as bolster their legislative efficacy and power once they get elected.
We can be proud that the number of women in Congress has grown since Rep. Rankin took her seat. But that is not enough. For too many women in Congress, the path to committee leadership dead-ends. Women in Congress deserve full access to legislative power. Their constituents deserve it, too.
Dr. Maya Kornberg is a political scientist and the author of Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Disfunction in Lawmaking (Columbia University Press, 2023). Kornberg leads research for the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.