Newswise — Although a record 90 women currently serve in the U.S. Congress (73 House, 17 Senate), including the first woman Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.), a recent USA Today story reported that independent analysts predict that the number of women in Congress will decline for the first time in three decades. What's more, a Sept. 20 New York Times/CBS News poll found women less enthused than men about voting this November -- possibly giving more of the nation's decision-making to men by default.
So what's slowing women's political momentum? Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, compares the current political climate to 1994, which pundits dubbed as "The Year of the Angry White Male."
"The obvious similarity [to 2010] is that you have the first midterm election facing a newly elected Democratic president," Bystrom said. "Change was in the air both times. And coupled with a bad economy, you had an activist president who was trying to push through progressive legislation. So you had this angry backlash."
Bystrom reports that the 2010 elections have gone from what pundits initially dubbed "The Year of the Republican Woman" to what they're now calling "The Year of Setback for Women." But she doesn't see the election being as bleak for women as some analysts have predicted.
"Looking at the figures I've seen, I think women will hold their own in Congress or maybe slightly increase their numbers," she said. "A lot will depend on the success of some of the Republican women because certainly some of the backlash that I've seen isn't really against women, it's against the Democratic Party. And when you look at the statistics on women elected officials, they tend to be three-fourths Democrat and one-fourth Republican in Congress."
Bystrom sees women being as politically active as ever, reporting that a record 298 (262 House, 36 Senate) filed to run this year for House and Senate seats (Old record: 251, 1992).
She says women stand to make some gains in gubernatorial races, too.
"Twenty-six women filed to run for governor. And one of the things we're seeing with gubernatorial races is that both political parties are pretty well-represented (12 D, 14 R)," she said. "There are still 10 women (5D, 5R) who came out of their primaries to run in general elections in eight states, which ties a record. We have two states -- New Mexico and Oklahoma -- where it's a woman versus woman race, so both will be electing their first woman governor. And of the 10 races, nine are open-seat races, which are good circumstances to be running in if you're a woman candidate."
Iowa is one of just four states (with Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont) that have never elected a woman to Congress, and one of only two (with Mississippi) to never elect a woman to Congress or as governor. But Bystrom sees a chance for the state to break its political glass ceiling in the District 2 House race between incumbent Dave Loebsack (D) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R).
"If (Terry) Branstad [former governor and GOP gubernatorial nominee] turns out a lot of Republican voters -- and I think he will because Republicans are smelling a victory in that race -- that will benefit other Republican candidates, such as Mariannette Miller-Meeks," Bystrom said. "In Sept. 15 polling conducted by a respected polling group for the National Republican Congressional Committee, they found a 1 percent race. So if it's that close and Branstad gets out the vote, that will really help her chances."
Bystrom admits that Roxanne Conlin (D) faces more of an uphill battle in her challenge to unseat longtime incumbent Sen. Charles Grassley (R), but says Conlin's running a strong race, too. She points out that Grassley won with 70 percent of the vote in his last election and she predicts the margin will be narrower this time.
The fact that Conlin and Miller-Meeks are both running against incumbents reinforces what Bystrom sees as the greatest obstacle facing Iowa women making it to Washington.
"It's because most of the women here run as challengers [against incumbents]," she said. "We would like to see Iowa produce a woman versus woman race, like we see in one race for the U.S. Senate and 13 races for the U.S. House this year. The last time Iowa had an open race for Congress was 2006, and two men ran against each other. Maybe redistricting before the 2012 election will produce more opportunities for Iowa women."