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2018 saw more women elected to Congress. Should we expect women to govern differently?

The 2018 election saw the largest contingent of new women elected to the House since that other “Year of the Woman” election in 1992.  Making her case to reclaim the Speakership, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is making a strongly gendered argument asserting “You cannot have the four leaders of Congress [and] the president of the United States, these five people, and not have the voice of women” But what should we expect now that women will have more seats at the policymaking table?  Do women govern differently?

I study gender differences in Congressional policymaking and have published two books on the subject, The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress and Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate. Here are a few important lessons that should guide our expectations.

Gender Does Influence Members’ Policy Priorities

First, gender has the strongest impact on the development of members’ issue priorities.  When members say that women bring a different perspective to policymaking, they are speaking of reflecting a different lived experience as women, mothers, daughters, sisters to bear on policy problems.   Members express these priorities by sponsoring and cosponsoring legislation, offering amendments in committee and on the floor, in an effort to influence the policy agenda.

Analyzing a range of legislative activities, I found that women members in the House and Senate were more likely than their male partisan colleagues to include policies related to women, children, and families in their package of legislative priorities. These differences were most evident on issues related to women’s rights such as women’s health or domestic violence where the policies could be directly connected to consequences for women as a group.

Thus, the impact of electing a more diverse membership is most important in the policy definition stage rather than voting outcomes. While congressional voting generally falls along party lines, the identification of policy problems and the proposals that get incorporated into legislation are shaped by the life experiences of the members who have a seat at the table.  The next Congress will include women of more diverse occupational backgrounds including female military veterans like Mikie Sherill (D-NJ), health care specialists like former nurse and Obama administration health advisor Lauren Underwood, and representatives of the working class like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who said she would not move to DC until her congressional salary kicks in because she cannot afford the rent.  The incoming members are also more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual identity. The 116th Congress will include more African-American and Latina women and the first Native American and Muslim women. Research shows that minority women legislate differently than white women and minority men, focusing particularly on the needs of the minority women in their communities.

The Impact of Gender is Shaped by Partisanship and Party Competition

Of course, the most casual observer of Congress knows that partisanship rules the day in Congress. Just as in 1992, the vast majority of women elected in 2018 are Democrats, widening the partisan gap in women’s representation.  The arrival of more women in the early 1990s coincided with the geographical realignment of the parties’ bases with Republicans gaining strength in the South and Democrats consolidating support in the Northeast and on the West coast. As a result, the Democratic Party has become more uniformly liberal and the Republican Party more solidly conservative.

The new women will enter a highly polarized Congress in which Democratic women, particularly minority women anchor the liberal end of the spectrum.   We should expect the more diverse entering class of women to actively pursue progressive policies.  Like the conservative Democrats who were defeated in 2010 and the moderate Republicans who lost in 2018, the moderate women who defeated Republican incumbents will face similar challenges as they try to swim against partisan tides to forge their own path as independent policymakers.

In this era of tight party competition, as the parties seek to differentiate themselves with voters, issues related to women’s rights have become an important fault line between the parties.  Republicans appeal to family values to energize social conservatives and Democrats use women’s issues, particularly reproductive rights, to mobilize feminist activists, minority women, and college-educated women.  During the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Democrats deployed a “War on Women” message painting Republicans as a threat to women’s rights.  Democratic women in Congress have been at the forefront of this messaging strategy and the new Democratic women elected in 2018 will likely join this effort.

Furthermore, Democrats and Democratic party activists value electing women, particularly liberal women who support abortion rights. The Women’s March and the #MeToo movement accelerated this trend with many of the newly elected women strongly supported by EMILY’s List.  Trump administration efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act and President Trump’s rhetoric led many of these women to throw their hat in the ring.  They can be expected to focus on health care, workplace discrimination, gun safety, and other issues important to the Democratic base.

Meanwhile, Republican women have never been more than 10% of the party caucus and their numbers actually declined in 2018 after retirements and defeats in tightly contested races.  The Republican women that served in the 1990s were more moderate than male colleagues, often supporting abortion rights and collaborating with Democratic women to advocate for women’s health, family and medical leave, and the inclusion of child support enforcement and increased child care subsidies in welfare reform.

By the early 2000s, as the Republican Party became more conservative and the center of the party’s geographical strength moved to the South, the Republican women elected became just as conservative as Republican men.  These women are not likely to collaborate with Democratic women who occupy the liberal end of their party.  Whereas, during the Obama presidency, Republican women in the Senate generally shied away from taking an active role in partisan fights over the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or budget battles to defund Planned Parenthood, the new more conservative cohort in the House, championed these causes and were eager to be the face of the party on these issues.  Newly elected Senator Marsha Blackburn (TN), chaired a special House committee to investigate Planned Parenthood and its practices regarding the sale of fetal tissue.  She advertised her work on the committee in her Senate race.

Republican Party leaders, eager to push back on the Democratic narrative that the party is harmful to women’s rights, want Republican women to step forward as leaders on these issues and they have elevated women to leadership positions to demonstrate that the Republican Party is not just a party for white men.  After the 2018 election, Senate Republicans moved quickly to elect Joni Ernst (R-A) as conference vice chair and House Republicans chose Liz Cheney (R-WY) as conference chair after Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) stepped down from leadership.  In response to criticism that Republicans brought in a female outside counsel to question Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings because there are no Republican women on the Judiciary Committee, newly elected Senator Marsha Blackburn (TN) is being recruited to join the committee.

Seniority is the Path to Power in Congress

The jockeying for leadership and committee positions in the House and Senate highlight a final important fact about Congress that will influence women’s power. Congress runs on seniority.  The newly elected Democratic women are starting at the bottom rung.  They will not generally have the seniority to capture seats on prestige committees or become subcommittee chairs.  Because there are so few Republican women and most were elected after 2010, few have the seniority to become ranking members in the House or chairs in the Senate.

However, since Democratic women have been expanding their ranks since the early 1990s, there are several Democratic women who will wield committee gavels in the House. Most prominently, Maxine Waters (D-CA) will chair Financial Services and Nita Lowey (D-NY) will lead the Appropriations Committee. Lowey could be joined by Kay Granger (R-TX) who is in a contested battle to become ranking member. In a divided Congress, few expect major legislative accomplishments. Therefore, many policy battles will be fought on Appropriations bills, as government funding is one of the few must pass bills. Lowey, a longtime advocate for women’s health care can be expected to push back on Trump administration policies regarding the Affordable Care Act, international family planning, and other women’s health issues. The election of a large new class of Democratic women could put them on the path to gaining the seniority needed to wield more influence in Congress.  The prominence of gender and race in the discussion over who should be elected to leadership in the House caucus signals that Democrats will devote increasing attention to ensuring women and minorities have a seat at the policymaking table. However, the continued dearth of Republican women in Congress, means that when Republicans hold the majority, women have very limited access to power.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Michele Swers
Michele Swers is a Professor of American Government in the Department of Government. She earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Swers' research...