Interview by Jennifer Rainey Marquez
Female politicians have to work harder to prove themselves to voters.
Does this make them better elected officials?
In their new book, “Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay In Office” (University of Michigan Press), political science faculty members Amy Steigerwalt and Jeffrey Lazarus analyze the unique pressures faced by female politicians and how those pressures affect not only their campaigns but their time in office. We recently spoke with them about their work:
The book discusses several challenges that plague female political candidates. What are some of the biggest?
Steigerwalt: A big part of it is simply how society views traditional male and female roles. When we think of the person running the country, many times our default picture is male. Women come into elections having to battle against perceptions that they’re not qualified, that they’re not supposed to be there. They’re also overcoming traditional social norms about how women should behave. In politics, where you need to be outspoken and potentially loud and clamoring and aggressive, women really have a tough road because those are just not qualities that society considers to be positive qualities in women.
This bleeds over to impact things like support from party gatekeepers and media coverage. It seems like a somewhat silly example, but we include a photograph in the book that was taken by a journalist in the members area for the U.S. Senate during Donald Trump’s inauguration. It shows three people taking a selfie and the original caption that was sent out was, “Woman takes a selfie with two male senators.” But the woman taking a selfie is also a senator! The caption should have been “Three senators take a selfie together.”
And this bias is not limited to first-time candidates — it also affects female incumbents?
Steigerwalt: Exactly. Female members of Congress — even very, very senior members — are still more likely to draw, for example, a primary challenger. Barbara Mikulski served as a senator from Maryland for 30 years, and she always drew primary challengers. She vanquished them. She never lost a general election with less than, I think, 68 percent of the vote. Objectively, that would seem to be a safe seat, but she always had to worry that she would have to fend off a challenger, not only from another party but also from within her own party.
Lazarus: That pressure, in turn, starts to affect the things that women do as members of Congress. You’re talking about substantive policy issues being affected, the business of the nation changing because of the ways that voters react to women and the way that women have to adjust to those voters’ reactions — essentially in order to keep their jobs.
So it goes beyond just having to spend more money or more energy on their campaign. It actually feeds into the way they’re governing?
Steigerwalt: Yes. Because they perceive that they’re going to face a more difficult re-election, that causes them to alter their behavior in office. And we find that’s true for the newest member coming in, and also those who have won re-election 10, 11, 12 times.
How exactly do women behave differently than men when they’re in office?
Lazarus: To defend against potential attacks, female members of Congress develop a more constituent-oriented mindset. On a surface level, they tend to spend more time back in their districts, place more staff there and send more mail to their constituents. On a deeper level, it alters their decisions about which bills to support or which committees to join.
Steigerwalt: Female legislators tend to introduce more legislation than their male counterparts, yet the bills they introduce are less likely to get passed than those introduced by men. The reality — which has been borne out by studies — is that voters reward introducing bills much more than they reward successful passes of legislation, because most people have no idea whether a bill actually passes. So female candidates are shifting towards these messaging bills, which signal to their constituents that they’re worried about their interests and needs.
But isn’t that a good thing? You’d think that being more attuned to your constituents’ needs, having more staff in your district, sending more money back to your district—these would be positives for voters.
Lazarus: It depends on whether you want your representative to be what we call a “delegate” or what we call a “trustee.” In the delegate model of representation, you have voters and those voters have preferences, and they send their representative off to government to do what they want.
The trustee model, meanwhile, allows the representative to have more freedom. In this model, representatives are not necessarily judged by how well they do precisely what voters want, but by how well the country is doing at the end of their term.
What we argue in our book is that gendered vulnerability pushes women away from being trustees and towards being delegates. If you want a representative that cares about your needs above all else, then yes, this makes women better elected officials. But to the extent that you want your representatives to exercise independent judgment and pursue some of their own policy goals, this situation is pretty limiting for women. For example, if you’re a female politician from a farming district and you have ideas about Medicare reform, you might not have the opportunity to work on that issue, because your time will be so consumed with the farming issues that your voters care about. Gendered vulnerability might produce results that are good for voters, but it doesn’t necessarily produce results that are good for the women themselves.
This year we’re seeing a record number of women filing to run for Congressional office. Could more female candidates possibly alter this dynamic — and if so, how?
Steigerwalt: I’m not positive that just increasing the number of women — unless it’s done on orders of magnitude — will necessarily lead to a shift in behavior. There’s a lot that has to be overcome and changed, and some of that is a perception that’s rooted within the women themselves — that they have to work harder and care more in order to be taken seriously.
Lazarus: That said, previous studies have shown that when state legislatures add women to their ranks over time, there’s a tipping point — usually when the chamber becomes around 20 percent female — when they start considering what are traditionally thought of as women’s issues, such as healthcare and family issues, more seriously and more often. Congress is now just short of that tipping point. I’m personally interested to see whether this same threshold effect would influence the way that women behave while in office. Does it allow women to focus more on legislating and less on messaging? How could that change the type of atmosphere in Congress?
Steigerwalt: On the other side of this, we have broader discussions happening right now about women’s representation and sexual harassment, and we’re seeing people acknowledge that these systematic effects are there. I think there’s potentially a lot to be gained by having more women in Congress who can say, “Wait a second, what’s going on here?”
Photo by Meg Buscema