The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Electing more women to Congress isn’t a solution for polarization

(Photo Credit: Office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski)

Michele Swers is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. She is the author of The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress and Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate.  This post is the fifth in our series on political polarization.  The first four posts were by Nolan McCartyFrances LeeSean Theriault, and Sarah Binder.  – Dan Hopkins

Dismayed by the gridlock in Congress, some have suggested that electing more women might ease the politics of polarization because women have a more consensus-oriented leadership style. Indeed, when Diane Sawyer interviewed the women of the Senate about a year ago, many of them asserted that if women were in charge they would resolve our fiscal crises because they are more inclined to compromise.

But while some individual female legislators may be more prone to compromise, the story is almost exactly the opposite: it is polarization that affects the presence and participation of women in Congress.

The centrality of women’s issues and women’s groups in the Democratic Party has helped increase the number of Democratic women in federal office, while the number of Republican women has remained stagnant. The graph below shows that the number of women in each party’s House and Senate delegations grew at the same slow pace until the early 1990s. Then in 1992, the “Year of the Woman” spurred more Democratic women to run for Senate in response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings.  Democratic women increased their numbers from 22 in the 102nd Congress (1991-1992) to 40 in the 103rd Congress (1993-1994), while Republican women gained only four seats.

Over time this gap has widened, as women are more likely to be elected from the liberal, urban, and racially diverse districts that elect Democrats. Meanwhile the partisan sorting of the electorate has virtually eliminated the moderate northeastern Republican and the conservative Southern Democrat and made the South, historically a less hospitable region for women candidates, the stronghold of the Republican Party.

My research shows that women do bring a different perspective to legislating. First, based on their life experiences as women and often as mothers, female legislators are more likely to prioritize issues related to women, children, and families. They are more likely to advocate for these interests in committee deliberations and in their floor speeches. For example, women were key players in the Affordable Care Act, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging President Obama to pass a more comprehensive bill and Democratic women pressing to eliminate discrimination against women in health insurance and to include a comprehensive package of preventive benefits.

Second, women bring a distinctive perspective to policy domains beyond women’s issues. In defense policy, for example, Democratic and Republican women in the Senate are more likely to support bills expanding social welfare benefits such as health and education for the troops. And the seven women on the Senate Armed Services committee have led sustained effort to reform how the military deals with sexual assault.

However, the distinctive priorities of women in Congress do not make them less partisan.  In the polarized Congress, women pursue these priorities as members of partisan teams who want to enhance their party’s reputation with voters and secure the majority in the next election. Many Democratic women legislators in particular hold key positions of leadership within the party, such as minority leader Pelosi and Senate Budget Chair (and former Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair) Patty Murray (D-Wash.). These women have significant influence over party priorities and electoral strategy, as well as significant responsibilities to promote the party electorally.

Indeed, Democratic women in Congress appear to believe they can advance women’s issues and enhance their party’s electoral fortunes simultaneously. Democratic women strongly championed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and were vocal proponents of including contraception in the preventive health benefits under Obamacare. Democratic women were also leading figures in the party’s campaign to characterize Republicans as engaged in a “war on women.” Female Democrats denounced the statements of Republican candidates like Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and railed against efforts by the Republican House majority to defund family planning programs. Their efforts are widely viewed as helping Democrats re-elect President Obama and retain the Senate majority. Expect Democrats to deploy the war on women theme again in 2014.

In contrast, Republican women remain a small contingent with only four Republican women in the Senate and 19 in the House. Their small numbers limit the influence they can wield as a group. In recent years, Republicans have turned to GOP women to deflect Democratic attacks that the party is anti-women. A desire to attract women voters helped Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) become conference chair in 2012. Republicans recently launched Project GROW to elect more women. The structural dynamics of the party’s electoral coalition suggest a difficult path to expansion. A new contingent of conservative Republican women may provide an alternative conservative vision of women’s interests, but as long as women’s issues constitute a prominent division between the parties, there will be little bipartisan collaboration among women on these polices.

In short, partisan polarization mostly demands that women legislators utilize their gender to help their parties, not to produce compromise and moderation.