But as Election Day dawns and the country votes, the question of how many women will win should start turning to how those who do will lead — and what the broader impact may be of a year when so many women ran for office.
For years, researchers have looked at differences between how men and women operate as lawmakers. Studies have shown that women in Congress tend to pay more attention to issues related to women, children and families; others have suggested they focus more on health care, civil rights and education, or are less likely to vote for defense spending or the death penalty.
Yet other research has shown that women appear to be more active as lawmakers, and co-sponsor more bills. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Chicago, for example, found that women in Congress bring more federal projects to their home districts and sponsor and co-sponsor more legislation than their male counterparts.
And a book released earlier this year by professors at Georgia State University found related results, arguing that women tend to be more oriented toward their constituents’ needs because they feel more pressure to work at getting re-elected, given the historically greater challenges they faced with getting funded, getting unbiased media attention and facing more challenging opponents.
“One of the things we know generally about members of Congress is they’re always trying to win the next re-election,” said Jeffrey Lazarus, who co-authored the book, “Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office,” with Amy Steigerwalt. “Are women trying harder than men to win the next election? Turns out they do.”
But as much as people might decry that focus of lawmakers, Lazarus said what that means in practice is they may represent their constituents more closely. Their research, parts of which spanned eight Congresses, shows female lawmakers tended to take more trips home, have more staffers based in their home district, sponsor more legislation tied to local issues, get on more committees tied to local priorities and garner more funding for local projects, Lazarus said in an interview.
“Our original title was ‘Working harder for the same pay,’ ” he said. Even when it comes to ideology, he said, “we find that women are much better at matching up with their district than men are” when it comes to conservative or liberal philosophies.
Why might female lawmakers be more likely to sponsor more legislation? The premise of Lazarus and Steigerwalt’s book, said Michele Swers, a professor at Georgetown who has extensively studied the role of female lawmakers, “is that it’s harder for women to get elected because the expectations are higher for them, and therefore they overcompensate. They do more generally.”
Yet Lazarus said it goes beyond the expectations of others. One reason may be that women have internalized the sociological belief that they have to work harder, which spurs them to do more, he said.
Another is the “objective, empirical finding that women actually do have a harder time winning re-election,” he said. “Both of those things combine to make women, for lack of a better word, ‘care’ more about their constituents.”
He acknowledges that this year is a little different, when female candidates are getting more visibility and support. But it will take time to see whether that changes how female lawmakers operate, especially as freshmen members of Congress tend to be the most oriented toward their constituents, he said.
Even if the record number of women running doesn’t translate into many new seats for women, the high-profile attention that female candidates have received this year, and the way they’re getting that attention, may have other effects, said Christina Wolbrecht, a professor of government at Notre Dame who has studied the effect of female candidates on younger women’s engagement in politics.
“It doesn’t matter if they win or not, it matters if they’re visible and particularly if they’re new,” or running for new positions, said Wolbrecht, whose research has shown that teenage girls are more likely to express an intention to be politically active in years when women politicians run highly visible campaigns.
She said one dynamic that will be “fascinating” to study after this year’s election is that not only are female candidates getting more attention, but they’re doing it in ways that challenge gendered expectations for female candidates, from breastfeeding their children in campaign ads to those “pushing both the mom thing and the military thing,” like Amy McGrath, a Democratic House candidate in Kentucky who has three children and is a retired Marine.
“One of the ironies is that oddly enough, when you point out how unusual it is, that has a positive impact for women,” Wolbrecht said. “Regardless of what happens in terms of how specific candidates do, we could still expect the number of women who have gotten attention to encourage greater interest in politics among young women.”