Closing the Gap: The Positive Impacts of Women’s Representation in American Legislatures

By: Mai Do.

Written as part of the course “Women in Politics”


Gender parity in American legislatures has yet to become a reality. Less than twenty percent of members of Congress are women.[1]Even Democratic stronghold states like California, where some might expect better representation for women in the state legislature, has a state legislature that is only 21.7% female.[2]With recent calls for increased representation of women in American state legislatures and in the United States Congress, examining the effectiveness of female legislators at representing American women remains pertinent to the national discussion on women in American politics and government. Although past study on female representation has resulted in somewhat mixed conclusions on the benefits of achieving gender parity in state legislatures and in Congress, much of the research supports – to varying degrees – claims that American women would benefit from being represented by female legislators. While gender is certainly not the only influence on female legislators’ behavior, American women are typically better represented by female legislators both at the state level and at the congressional level, with female legislators acting as more frequent and effective proponents of policy that largely benefits women or is often prioritized by women.

Partisanship has been noted as a significant influence on legislators, but a legislator’s gender also plays a powerful role in their behavior toward women’s issue legislation, marking them as preferable representatives of their female constituents over male legislators. Both bill introductions and cohesive voting behavior demonstrate that female members of Congress are increasingly representing women’s issues.[3]Despite persistently lower numbers of women in state legislatures and in Congress, female legislators at both the state and national level have, over time, become more representative of their female constituencies. Sanbonmatsu provides evidence to suggest that female legislators at the state level are more likely than their male counterparts to sponsor legislation that addresses issue areas women often prioritize such as education, child care, and family.[4]Gender also positively influences how frequently female legislators introduce legislation related to women’s issues.[5]The outcome of the state legislative process, too, is influenced by female representation among state legislators. There is evidence to suggest that stronger women’s descriptive representation led to state policy in favor of women in the 1990s.[6]While the degree to which each group represents women differs between the state and national legislature, female legislators at both levels are more likely to take legislative action related to women’s interest legislation and prioritize women’s issues in their work.

Female legislators often consider themselves to be more responsible for their female constituents than their male peers. Regardless of the issue, female legislators are more likely to consider the possible impact of the policy they shape on the lives of women and children.[7]In a survey of Californian and Arizonian legislators, Reingold finds evidence to suggest that women are more likely than their male counterparts to consider women an important constituency group with particular concerns, to consider themselves responsible for representing women’s issues, and to view women as one of their most crucial reelection constituencies.[8]This attitude of responsibility and constant consideration of female constituents propels female legislators’ action on women’s issues.

Simultaneous racial identification, among other identifiers, can enhance and amplify gender identification, making some female legislators of color even better representatives for both white and non-white American women and their shared priorities. In a study on African American female legislators at the state level, Bratton et al. find moderate support for the assertion that black female legislators introduce more women’s interest measures than do men.[9]Furthermore, the intersectional approach to the effectiveness of female legislators “even when controlling for partisanship and district demographics, African American women are more likely to focus on both women’s interests and the African American community’s interests.”[10]Simultaneous racial identification enhances gender identification rather than detracting from it, providing further support for effective representation of women through female legislators, particularly non-white female legislators.

Female legislators are also often more effective legislators in general, and combining their capabilities with their legislative priorities that often consider women’s perspectives produces better representation for women’s issues. When faced with the constrained circumstance of being in the minority party in Congress, evidence suggests that female legislators are more likely to perform better than their male counterparts, capitalizing on their cooperative tendencies to produce bipartisan action and achieve their policy agendas.[11]Their legislative priorities, as previously mentioned, often consider female constituents. With women’s issues taking a firmer role in their legislative priorities, female legislators are more likely than male legislators to achieve action on those priorities even in unfavorable conditions such as being in the minority party.

American women are usually better represented by female legislators. A female legislator’s increased likelihood of taking effective legislative action on women’s issues and her often positive attitude toward addressing women’s issues makes her a more suitable representative of her female constituents than a male legislator. However, as also demonstrated by the interactions between gender, race, and class in legislators’ behaviors, gender is a shared identity, not a necessarily shared experience. Considering this, women’s representation is better served by the increased presence of not only female legislators, but also legislators of other marginalized identities, whether queer, gender noncomforming, or otherwise. It is through this plurality of voices in American legislatures which cultivates a more intersectional approach to policymaking, and, ultimately, a more equitable American experience for those impacted by the legislation produced by a more representative set of legislators.

 

[1]. Cohn, Laura. “The U.S. Made Zero Progress in Adding Women to Congress.” Fortune, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/11/10/election-results-women-in-congress/

[2]. “Women in State Legislatures for 2017.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2017.aspx

[3]. Vega, Arturo and Juanita M. Firestone “The Effects of Gender on Congressional Behavior and the Substantive Representation of Women.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 20.2 (1995): 213-222.

[4]. Sanbonmatsu, Kira “Gender-Related Political Knowledge and the Descriptive Representation of Women.” Political Behavior, 25 no. 4 (2003): 367-88.

[5]. Bratton, Kathleen A. and Kerry L. Haynie (1999) “Agenda Setting and Legislative Success in State Legislatures: The Effects of Gender and Race.” The Journal of Politics61.3: 668-671.

[6]. Cowell-Meyers, Kimberly and Laura Langbein “Linking Women’s Descriptive and Substantive Representation in the United States.” Politics & Gender5 (2009): 512.

[7]. Carroll, Susan J. “Looking Back at the 1980s and Forward to the 1990s.” CAWP News and Notes (Center for the American Woman and Politics) 7 (2003): 9-12.

[8].Reingold, Beth “Concepts of Representation Among Female and Male State Legislators. Legislative Studies Quarterly 17.4 (1992): 509-533.

[9]. Bratton, Kathleen A. et al. (2006) “Agenda Setting and African American Women in State Legislatures,” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 28:3-4 (2006): 71-80.

[10]. Bratton, Kathleen A. et al. “Agenda Setting and African American Women in State Legislatures,” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 28:3-4 (2006): 91.

[11]. Volden, Craig et al. “When Are Women More Effective Lawmakers Than Men?” American Journal of Political Science 57.2 (2013): 326-341.

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