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Research and Resources on Women and US Politics (February 2017): Women as Officeholders

By Melinda A. Mueller

Women as Officeholders

Most research on women officeholders has focused on the US House and Senate, in part because of the high level of power these offices hold, and in part because of the ease of data collection. Congress maintains readily accessible records on roll call votes, committee hearings, and other relevant sources of political power. In addition, as the internet became more widespread as a tool for campaigns and information, all members of Congress maintained at least an official website, and in most cases, campaign websites. Thus, studying Congress offered multiple points for comparing men and women legislators.

By the mid-1990s, enough women served in the US House to begin conducting quantitative studies comparing men’s and women’s legislative behavior. For instance, Arturo Vega and Juanita Firestone examined the role that gender played in legislative voting behavior from 1981 through 1992, determining that for most of this period, gender did not play a role in shaping voting behavior—women members tended to be more liberal, but that was primarily because most women were Democrats. However, they found that from 1991 to 1992, women were significantly more cohesive and liberal, suggesting that a cohesive voting block of women legislators could have an impact on representation (Vega and Firestone 1995).

Cindy Simon Rosenthal’s edited work Women Transforming Congress offers a historical analysis of the role of women serving in Congress, examining several different variables, including specific policies, staffing decisions, floor debate, and feminist perspectives. This edited book has offered a foundation for similar updated research. For instance, Beth Reingold’s edited book, Legislative Women: Getting Elected, Getting Ahead, examines a range of questions about women in leadership roles, including committee appointments, the party system, and race and ethnicity. Similarly, Sue Thomas and Clyde Wilcox’s edited work Women and Elective Office: Past, Present, and Future provides considerable analysis of intersectionality, including chapters on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ideology.

Building on Vega and Firestone’s approach to studying sex and legislative behavior, Michelle Swers conducted an in-depth analysis of women representatives from 1993 through 1996 in her book The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress. By examining the role that female House members play from sponsorship and cosponsorship decisions to final floor votes, Swers illustrates that women do have an impact as representatives. Her analysis indicates that while party and ideology play important roles in shaping legislative behavior, women were significantly more likely to focus on women’s issues and gender-related issues, including education, child-care, and abortion rights. Similarly, Corina Schulze found that women House members were more likely to make earmark requests for their district related to women’s issues than comparable men, when controlling for party, ideology, and minority status (Schulze 2013). More recent research on earmarks concluded that gender appears to play a role in earmark requests for women’s economic initiatives, but not necessarily for women’s health (Schulze and Hurvitz 2016).

Swers continued her examination of women in Congress in her more recent book, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate. By examining the behavior of male and female Senate members, she found that women do play important roles in advocating for social welfare and women’s rights, and that this behavior is closely tied to political party. In a related Senate study, Tracy Osborn and Jeanette Mendez examined floor speeches in the 106th Senate, finding that women senators are significantly more likely to give speeches relevant to women’s issues, such as women’s health and family issues (Osborn and Mendez 2010).

One indicator of Congressional power is committee placement. More powerful legislators will be able to serve on their first choice committees, where they can best focus on their policy preferences and gain more political power. If women are gaining power in the House, then they should also gain strength in committee politics. Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly examined this system in their analysis of committee requests from the 86th through the 103th Congresses. They found that women were generally at a disadvantage in gaining their first choice committee requests, and Republican women were at a greater disadvantage than Democratic women (Frisch and Kelly 2003). One significant factor shaping this outcome is incumbency, so further research updating these findings to more recent congresses would be helpful, as women have gained power through incumbency.

Another method of evaluating men’s and women’s political power in Congress is to consider legislative effectiveness. How likely is it that a legislator can see a bill passed into a law? Alana Jeydel and Andrew Taylor studied this measure in the 103rd through the 105th House of Representatives, and found that sex does not play an important role in determining legislative effectiveness. Rather, seniority and political power are more important indicators (Jeydel and Taylor 2003). At the same time, Sarah Anzia and Christopher Berry found that women congress members were able to gain more federal spending for their districts than men, and were more active as bill sponsors and cosponsors (Anzia and Berry 2011). Craig Volden, Alan Wiseman, and Dana Wittmer examined how a congress member’s sex affects legislative effectiveness in a period of high polarization. If women congress members are more likely to sponsor more bills, does that serve them well during times of polarization? They found that women’s tendency to focus on consensus-building provides an advantage to women in the minority party, but not in the majority party, which may weaken Republican women (Volden, Wiseman, and Wittmer 2013).

While much of the scholarly literature indicates that men and women congress members have different policy agendas and behave differently, some research suggests that sex differences in legislative behavior are at best marginal. Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon examined over sixty years of legislative behavior within individual House districts, focusing on periods when women House members replaced men, or vice versa. They found that district-level factors—especially district ideology—were the clearest indicators of legislative behavior (Simon and Palmer 2010). In a somewhat similar study of turnover in the Senate, Brian Frederick found that male and female senators from the same state were very similar ideologically, though female senators were generally more supportive of women’s issues (B. Frederick 2011).

Women in legislative offices also can have an impact on their constituents. Kim Fridkin and Patrick Kenney’s book The Changing Face of Representation: The Gender of US Senators and Constituent Communications examines this impact by analyzing senators’ communications with their constituents in 2006. They concluded that a senator’s sex does shape communications. Interestingly, constituents appear to pay more attention to and are more knowledgeable about female senators. Philip Jones found similar results in his research on US senators, concluding that constituents are more knowledgeable about female senators’ voting records (Jones 2014).

The number of minority women serving in Congress has also increased, providing opportunities for greater research. Wendy Smooth explains that African American women have benefitted significantly from the creation of majority-minority districts, designed after the 1965 Voting Rights Act to encourage more minority representation in Congress. Such districting is rarer today, and Smooth questions whether minority women can be elected in non-minority districts (Smooth 2014). Similar to Smooth’s emphasis on districting is Anna Sampaio’s consideration of the role of demographics in her study of Latina politics, noting that most Latina candidates come from states with large Latina/o populations, such as California, New Mexico, Arizona, and New York (Sampaio 2014). Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Katherine Tate, and Janells Wong provide an historical analysis of the role of women of color in the US Congress, examining  their success in winning seats, as well as the obstacles they face once elected. For instance, women of color often do not serve on powerful committees in the House (Garcia Bedolla, Tate, and Wong 2014). As more women of color serve in the US House, researchers can conduct larger studies to examine their impact relative to men and white women.

Works Cited