Women step up in House GOP leadership. Why that's just a start.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers rises to the No. 4 position in the House GOP leadership, which saw a net add of one woman to its roster. But the party lags badly in having women among its ranks in Congress.

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    Following the House GOP leadership election, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, speaks to reporters after the House Republicans voted for her to head the Republican Conference for the next session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington claimed the fourth-ranking position in the House GOP Wednesday.

But even as her ascent up the leadership ladder showed Republicans realize they need to improve their standing with female voters, it was also the exception that proves the rule that Democrats have done far more to reach out to women, including by electing them to Congress.

With the backing of House Speaker John Boehner, among others, Representative McMorris Rodgers defeated Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a former chairman of the largest House conservative caucus who had the backing of former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, in the race for the GOP’s conference chairman.

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That news was welcomed in many GOP circles as a good sign for a party that endured a yawning gender gap in the 2012 election cycle, where Democrats won women’s votes by an 11 percent margin over their Republican foes.

“She is a firebrand for conservative women, and electing her to the chairmanship is the first step in a much-needed transformation of the GOP party,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, in a statement. “The party – still viewed by many as too old, too white, and too male – needed a shakeup, and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers is the right person for the job.”

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) of North Carolina, one of 20 women among House conservatives, was likewise pleased.

“I'm proud to see the progress that is being made within our party and the growing role of women in our leadership,” Representative Ellmers said in a statement.

The number of women in the GOP leadership increased by one versus the last cycle – while Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota stepped away, Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) of Kansas and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) of North Carolina both joined the leadership team.

McMorris Rodgers isn’t a token lawmaker – she was Mitt Romney’s congressional liaison and was already in party leadership during the last Congress. Moreover, she defeated a man who has deep respect in the conference for his knowledge of policy issues, particularly on health care.

But compared with the level to which women have come to help define the Democratic party in Congress, McMorris Rodgers and Co. have a long, long way to go.

One need only look to earlier in the day, when House minority leader Nancy Pelosi showed the potency and breadth of women’s power in her party. There was Representative Pelosi, standing shoulder to shoulder with many of the nearly 60 House Democratic women at a press conference announcing that she, the first-ever female speaker of the House, would stay on as leader of her caucus for another two years.

That’s a nearly three-to-one advantage for Democrats in terms of female representation in the House. In the Senate, where liberal heartthrobs like Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin will join the party in 2013, Democrats will have 16 women senators to the Republicans’ four.

Overall, that’s the most women in the Senate ever – and it’s a four-to-one advantage for Democrats.

While there isn’t a one-to-one connection between lawmakers and gender support, the results of the 2012 election are unambiguous: Exit polls showed women breaking for President Obama and Democrats by double-digit margins in many states.

“I come here with my sisters,” said Pelosi, noting that when she came to Congress a quarter of a century earlier there were only 23 total women in the House, split relatively evenly between right and left.

“Today, we have over 60 House Democratic women,” she said as her members applauded. “Very good. Not enough. We want more.”

In the Republican event unveiling the party’s new leadership, women – even with three of them on stage – went with nary a mention.

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