Are Women Legislators Less Effective? Evidence from the U.S. House in the 103rd-105th Congress

Article excerpt

We compare the ability of female and male members of the House of Representatives to turn policy preferences into law-something we label "legislative effectiveness." The existing literature on women in American legislatures is opaque, with some scholars suggesting women are less effective than their male colleagues and others arguing they are just as effective. Utilizing data from the 103rd-105th Congresses-specifically, data on bill and amendment sponsorship and Stein and Bickers' data on the distribution of federal domestic spending-we argue women House members are not demonstrably less effective than their male counterparts. Legislative effectiveness is the product of seniority, preferences, and membership in important House institutions.

Despite their relatively small numbers, much has been written about women legislators in the United States. Many scholars, for example, have found women members of Congress to be more liberal than their male colleagues (Burrell 1994; Clark 1998; Gehlen 1977; Leader 1977; Norton 1999a; Welch 1985). A large literature also shows female legislators at all levels of American government to be more likely to support and promote "women's issues"-the most commonly-analyzed examples of which are abortion, education, health care, and welfare (Barren 1995; Bingham 1997; Boxer 1994; Burrell 1994; Dodson 1998; Foerstal and Foerstal 1996; Gertzog 1995; Kathlene 1994; Margolies-Mezvinsky 1994; Norton 1999b; Reingold 1996, 2000, 137-84; Swers 1998, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Tamerius 1995; Thomas 1994; Vega and Firestone 1995). But little attention has been paid to the most simple of questions: Are women as effective as men when it comes to legislating?1 We attempt to answer that question.

The work undertaken on women in legislatures implies two competing hypotheses. The first is that female lawmakers are not as effective as their male counterparts. This hypothesis is based primarily upon the fundamental notion that women members of Congress are different. As we noted above, research has revealed women "to be a continuing liberal influence in Congress" (Burrell 1994: 158), repeatedly voting and taking positions to the left of men and, hence, median legislators. There is also evidence that women have different leadership styles (Jewell and Whicker 1994; Rosenthal 1998) and make sense of issues (Kathlene 1995) differently. As former Representative Barbara Jordan put it in 1991, "Women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have" (Wilt, Paget, and Matthews 1994: 266). Kathlene (1995), in an analysis of the Colorado state legislature, finds that women legislators conceptualize problems differently than do their male colleagues, something that results in unique policy prescriptions. In a similar vein, Dodson and Carroll (1991) argue that women are more likely than men to bring citizens into the policy process-they want to open the system up to public scrutiny and grant access to groups that represent marginalized segments of society. Research has suggested that these gender differences are socially-constructed (Gilligan 1982).2

If legislatures are gendered institutions, as, for example, Kenney (1996), Rosenthal (1998) and Thomas (1997) argue, women lawmakers will be ineffectual because their unique skills are not particularly well-suited to their environment. An institution created by men will reward individuals who possess quintessentially "male" qualities such as competitiveness and individualism. These "skills" are very different from the female approach to lawmaking which, the literature has argued, is more integrative, collaborative, and consensual (Rosenthal 1998; Kathlene 1995). A more nefarious argument is that men legislators-monopolizing positions of power within legislative institutions and far more numerous than their female counterparts-consciously discriminate against women lawmakers. Women are shut out of the real spheres of influence in Congress by men who have inimical policy interests or do not wish to see their political power diluted (Gertzog 1995; Norton 1995). …