The 2016 US presidential election included the first female nominee of a major party presidential, Hillary Clinton. This historic election suggests women have achieved parity with men in terms of political power. That assumption would be naïve, disregarding the complex connections between sex and politics. While some women, like Clinton, have gained significant political power, women are still greatly underrepresented in political office, currently holding only 19.4 percent of seats in Congress and 24.5 percent of state legislative seats,1 even though women make up 51 percent of the US population. Research indicates that in childhood, women are socialized to think differently about politics from men, and those differences, coupled with cultural and institutional norms about gender behavior, can shape how men and women participate in politics, including voting, activism, running for office, and serving as an officeholder. This essay provides an overview of the current state of the scholarly literature and resources on women and US politics, exploring the complexities that shape the relationship between sex and politics.
Most political science research on women and politics stems from the latter half of the twentieth century, although some historical pieces focusing on suffrage, women’s employment, and women’s activism (see e.g., Wood and Pennybacker 1914; Pierce 1935; Fisher and Whitehead 1944; McLaughlin 1947), date back to the early twentieth century. Much of the research was normative—encouraging (or discouraging) suffrage for women—or descriptive—focusing on describing the role of women in public life. Otherwise, until the behavioral revolution began in the 1950s, Political Science research focused primarily on power relationships, institutions, and public action. Since women in the early twentieth century did not play a significant formal role in public power systems, researchers tended to disregard their role. Although women gained the right to vote in 1920, they typically did not turn out to vote as regularly as men, and they typically voted similarly to their fathers or spouses. Dolan, Deckman, and Swers note in Women and Politics that only about one-third of women voted in 1920, and that those women who did vote were more likely to be middle class, white, and educated. While women did not make up a majority of voters, they were often deeply involved in community action throughout US history, with recent research on the role of women in antislavery petitioning during the early-mid 19th century illustrating that participation quite well (Carpenter and Moore 2014). Even early behavioral research on women and politics, such as Duverger’s The Political Role of Women, analyzed sex as a variable (Duverger 1955) but did not consider the gendered norms of political systems.
However, as women entered the workforce—and eventually political office—in larger numbers throughout the twentieth century, researchers began shifting their focus toward studying women in politics as a central issue. In 1969, the women and politics section of the American Political Science Association was founded, providing a formal setting for scholars to advance research (Waylen et al. 2013). Furthermore, in 1971, Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics established the Center for American Women and Politics, the primary web source for conducting research, offering longitudinal data on women candidates and officeholders at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as in-depth analysis of the role of women in US politics.
Additional web resources on US women and politics include the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, focusing on women gubernatorial candidates; the re:gender think-tank website (formerly the National Council for Research on Women), focusing on academic feminist research and advocacy; and Political Parity, focusing on research and advocacy for women in Congress and governorships. In addition to these resources, considerable public opinion data are available on gender, including the Pew Research Center and the American National Election Studies Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior.
Along with the growth in data, a rich body of scholarly literature on women and politics has developed since the 1970s. A driving force in this research has been the development of the “gender gap” in voting. Since 1980, a gender gap—where a larger proportion of women voters has preferred the Democratic presidential candidate compared to male voters—has existed in every presidential election, ranging in size from 4 percent in 1992 to 11 percent in 1996.2 At the same time, since 1980, women have turned out to vote in higher proportions than men.3 These changes altered the nature of campaign strategies, policy priorities, and ultimately opportunities for women’s political power and representation.
During this time period, women have made significant gains in political power. Besides Clinton’s presidential nomination, two women have served as major party vice-presidential candidates (Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008), three women serve on the US Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor), and a record number of 100 women serve in the US House and Senate. Women are still very underrepresented in politics, but their power has grown.
Given these developments, this essay will review the key contemporary literature on US women and politics. The first section reviews research on the role political socialization plays in shaping political power and policy preferences for men and women. The second section presents research about women’s political ambition, examining the complex factors influencing women’s decision to run for office. The third section reviews literature on women as candidates, considering how sex plays a role in campaign strategies, resources, and election outcomes. The fourth and fifth sections examine research on women as elected officials, considering whether sex matters in how legislators and executives behave as representatives. This body of research focuses heavily on the US Congress and state legislatures but expands in two directions—to the local level of county and city offices, as well as to the executive offices, including governors, and the presidency. Each of these sections includes research on intersectionality, examining the complex relations among sex, race, ethnicity, gender, and class. The essay concludes with a brief examination of new developments in research.
2. “Center for American Women and Politics,” Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, 2016. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/ggpresvote.pdf.
3. “Center for American Women and Politics,” Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, 2016. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/genderdiff.pdf.
Melinda A. Mueller is Professor, Political Science, at Eastern Illinois University. Dr. Mueller (B.A. Susquehanna University, M.A., Ph.D. Rochester) primarily conducts research on gender and politics, focusing on questions of descriptive and substantive policy representation. Her publications include a book chapter on "soccer moms" and voting, in Engaging the Public: How the Government and Media Can Reinvigorate American Democracy and a forthcoming chapter on gender, campaigning and Twitter, in Social Media and Politics, co-authored with students.