Opinion: Why is Elise Stefanik congratulating a new speaker, instead of becoming one?

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Since the Republicans vacated the House speakership three weeks ago, a throng of candidates have vied for the position, rising and falling in increasingly short succession. After repeated failed votes, the party finally amassed a slate of nine candidates, winnowing them down until the generically-named Rep. Mike Johnson claimed the speaker-designate crown. House Republicans cheered Johnson’s victory, surely applauding as much from relief that the process was over as celebration of the man who won.

Nicole Hemmer - Courtesy Nicole Hemmer
Nicole Hemmer - Courtesy Nicole Hemmer

The raft of would-be speakers came from across the country. They spanned the party’s admittedly limited ideological range, and included both those who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election and those who affirmed the legitimate winner (Johnson is in the former camp).

But one thing united the dozen or so Republicans vying to lead the House: they were all men. The highest-ranking woman in the GOP, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who currently serves as conference chair, spent the past three weeks tweeting out her congratulations to each of the four successive speaker-designates.

Stefanik may have her own reasons for avoiding the speaker’s chair, which has recently become more of a career-killer than a career highlight. But her absence, and the absence of any of the other Republican women in the House from the roster of potential speakers, calls attention to the party’s overall woman problem. Over the last 15 years, women have been strategically visible in the party, but have received very little power in return.

Consider the case of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, plucked from near-obscurity to join the Republican presidential ticket as a vice presidential candidate in 2008. As the campaign slunk toward defeat in the fall of that year, Palin bore the brunt of the blame. Yet she remained a favorite of the party’s right-flank, emerging as a leader of the Tea Party movement after Barack Obama’s election.

Within a few years, however, she had faded into irrelevance. This was in part due to her own choices: she opted for television fame over governing when she quit the Alaska governorship in 2009. But other former officeholders did the same, with different results. Both former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich became television commentators after leaving office, using that new platform to launch presidential runs in 2012.

There were others as well, women like Rep. Michele Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party caucus in the House. The top Republican fundraiser in the House and one of the most visible members of the conference — she quickly became a household name — Bachmann vied for a position in party leadership after the 2010 midterm elections. But she was passed over, and a few years later left the House altogether (her successor, Tom Emmer, was speaker-designate for a few hours earlier this week).

Former Rep. Liz Cheney, another highly visible House member, quickly made her way into leadership, becoming the conference chair after two years in office. She was stripped of her position 15 months later for opposing the efforts to overturn the 2020 election and voting to impeach Donald Trump. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who held the conference chair before Cheney, left the party leadership in 2019 rather than ascending higher in its ranks. (The chair, which Stefanik now holds, remains the highest leadership position any Republican woman has attained.)

These may seem like idiosyncratic cases, united only because they were each highly visible women denied a path to power who then lost the party’s support. But they are necessarily idiosyncratic, since so few Republican women hold federal office, and fewer still have even a brush with power within the party.

Currently there are 33 women in the Republican House Conference, the highest ever for the party — but still only a third of the number of Democratic women. Since the famous “Year of the Woman” in 1992, when the number of women elected to Congress nearly doubled, the Democratic Party has far outstripped the Republican Party in terms of representation. Which is not to say the Democratic Party has been a place of parity: even with the surge of Democratic women in Congress since 2018, they still represent only around 40% of the party’s caucus. And of course, Rep. Nancy Pelosi remains the only woman to have ever become speaker.

So what explains the glass ceiling that kept Republican women out of the ring for the current speakership races? Some have argued that women are “too smart” to run for speaker, especially at a moment when the position has become a dead-end — and short-term — job. But this is too cute by half, an essentialist way of blaming women for their own lack of power.

The same dynamic accompanied Bachmann’s failed bid for a leadership role. At the time that she dropped out of the leadership race, Politico wrote that she “may actually retain significant power to influence the GOP agenda as an outsider,” suggesting that she had little need for formal power so long as she had symbolic power.

But a stronger explanation rests with the party’s ideas about women. Why would Stefanik aim for speaker when the party has never offered a woman a role above conference chair? Why would she believe the party would support such a rise? The party opposes most legislation aimed at aiding women.

Only 33 House Republicans voted for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2019, and the Republican-led Senate refused to take it up. The party is uniformly against reproductive rights, and has struggled to revise its position even in the face of a number of election losses following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The vast majority of Republicans in the House voted against a 2022 bill that would have codified the right to contraception. Two-thirds of Republican voters believe gender equality has gone far enough (or has gone too far), leaving little pressure to break glass ceilings in Congress.

Republicans understand the value of having women in high-profile positions. Given the party’s broad opposition to feminism, a few female faces help cut against the image of a retrograde boy’s club. But so far the party’s congressional wing has shown little interest in matching that visibility with power, and despite cycling through speaker-designate after speaker-designate, that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com