What more female officeholders could mean for women's issues – and what are "women's issues," anyway?

On November 3, 1992, Illinois voters elected Carol Moseley Braun to the United States Senate. Moseley Braun’s win was historic for several reasons — in defeating the then-incumbent Democratic senator, Alan Dixon, she not only became Illinois’s first female senator, but also the first female African-American senator in the entire country and the first African-American U.S. senator for the Democratic Party.

Carol Moseley Braun represented Illinois in the United States Senate from 1993 to 1999.

Having previously served as an Assistant United States Attorney and member of the Illinois State House of Representatives, Moseley Braun was inspired to run for a seat on the U.S. Senate in 1991 after Dixon voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in spite of allegations of sexual harassment brought forth by Anita Hill during the confirmation proceedings. 

Including Moseley Braun, three other women won Senate seats in 1992, bringing the total number of women serving on the U.S. Senate to six. An additional 24 women won seats in the House. For the first time in history, Congress was solidly 10 percent female, and 1992 was canonized as the “Year of the Woman.”

Rebecca Sive, author, advocate and founding director of Women in Public Leadership, an executive education program of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, began her political advocacy career in the 1970s. She was actively involved in getting Moseley Braun elected in that historic senatorial race. 

“[Moseley Braun] ran because of the outcry on the matter [of Thomas’s confirmation],” she said. “There had been few women in the Senate before 1992. Their sheer presence made a huge difference, I think, on the policy front, looking back 26 years now.”

Sive’s recently released book, Vote Her In: Your Guide to Electing Our First Woman President, is the second guide she’s written prescribing what it would take to get more women elected at all levels of government. It is aims to be simultaneously inspirational and practical, heavily researched yet approachable. Vote Her In outlines practical steps for electing the first female president, and its manifesto is informed by the same energy that has propelled the “pink wave” forward since 2016. 

With at least 256 women set to appear on ballots for congressional races this November, 2018 has been cast as the next “Year of the Woman.” If the women predicted to win their races are successful, 25 percent of Congress could be female by the start of the next legislative year. As for the executive branch, there are three potential female front-runners for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. 

Carol Moseley Braun with other female senators in 1992.

What might this mean for the future of public policy making in America?

Based on her own experience lobbying for women’s issues since the mid-1970s, Sive said female politicians are the ones who spearhead policies and propose and pass legislation that improves the lives of women and girls.  

Rebecca Sive

“Men don't do that at the same pace,” she said. “Women pursue these policies on issues like rape, domestic violence, equal pay, reproductive rights, you name it.” 

Sive’s observations and experiences, as well as her writing and teaching, and the experiences and writing of many others featured in the book, are backed by research findings from Harris Public Policy professor Alexander Fouirnaies. His recent paper, “The Gender Gap in Political Careers: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures,” proposes the impact that women in government could have — and have had — on the formation of public policy initiatives when elected in larger numbers. 

Fouirnaies’s research focuses on state legislatures, which on average are already slightly more female than Congress at large (the percentage of state legislators who are women grew from about 20 percent in 1990 to roughly 25 percent in 2015, according to the data), but his findings are applicable at all levels of government. In applying original data to existing research on the inefficacy of the governmental gender gap, Fouirnaies attempts to quantify women’s impact on public policy vis a vis their current representation on select legislative committees.

“Most if not all of the overall difference in men and women’s focus on women’s issues can be explained by the higher rate at which women serve on women’s issues committees,” according to the findings of Fouirnaies and his co-researchers. “Although women might self-select onto these committees...we see no evidence that women exhibit a pre-existing interest in women’s issues legislation before they are assigned to women’s issues committees.”

For the purposes of their research, Fouirnaies and his collaborators defined “women’s issues” as health, education and welfare (first identified as such in Michele Swers’s 2001 paper, “Understanding the Policy Impact of Electing Women: Evidence from Research on Congress and State Legislatures”). They then used these parameters to examine what kinds of bills female legislators sponsor. 

“The bills that women sponsor also focus, by and large, on women’s issues,” they write. “Again, roughly 23.5 percent of legislators in our dataset are women, but more than 30 percent of bills categorized as concerning welfare are sponsored by women legislators, and roughly 28 percent of bills categorized as health-related are sponsored by women. Women also sponsor education bills at an unusually high rate.”

What are women's issues? What are men's issues?

The idea that any issues should be considered distinctly as “women’s issues” is a contentious one, and yet such assumptions, and the subsequent funneling of women into the committees concerned with such, have a direct effect on the fundraising potential of female candidates and politicians.

“We do find that women are less successful at fundraising than men,” Fouirnaies and his co-authors write. “Even though women are equally productive as lawmakers, they secure less funding than their male colleagues. These findings suggest that the underrepresentation of women on top-flight committees may have real consequences for their careers within the legislature. Given the potential donor contribution boost associated with serving on prestigious committees, it is unlikely that women are voluntarily opting out of these positions. Rather, it seems more likely that institutional factors drive them to serve on women’s issues committees, creating a fundraising penalty as a result.”

Fewer women in government means less funding for social issues that have been siloed as women’s issues, which ensures that such sectors will never float to the same level of prestige as top-funded committees such as finance and rules.

State Sen. Liz Krueger

“I don't think there are any issues, as a legislator, that are uniquely women's issues,” said New York State Senator Liz Krueger AM’81, who has served in New York’s Senate since 2002 and is up for reelection this November. “Having said that, do I notice that discussions of child policy, reproductive health policy [and] family law get much more attention, at least initially, for women legislators? Yes, they do.”

For the past eight years, Krueger has attempted to pass the Reproductive Health Act in New York, a bill which would codify the protections of Roe v. Wade for all New Yorkers, even it that decision were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I am one legislator away from having the 32 votes I need to pass this bill in the Senate,” she said. “It's already passed the Assembly eight years in a row. I believe that we're on the verge of seeing several new Democrats in the state Senate after the November 6th election. Several of them are women. Every single Democrat running for the Senate and the sitting Democrats have all pledged their support for this bill.”

Even though women are less likely to serve on “top flight” committees such as agriculture, commerce, energy, finance, labor, transportation, and ways and means, there is a certain forward thinking-ness that women bring to their advancement of these traditional women’s issues that, when implemented, could have reverberatory impact in “top flight” sectors of public policy making. It’s not that women enter politics with pre-existing policy interests or backgrounds, according to “The Gender Gap,” but that women are driven to policy creation by distinct institutional factors. 

“Something that really concerns me in Congress is the short-term thinking,” said Tabitha Isner MPP’09, who is running as the Democratic nominee for a congressional seat in Alabama this November. 

“A great example of that is the need for affordable, high-quality childcare. Despite the incredible return on investment [in early childhood education], it's not been something that Congress has invested in as fully as it should. And I think their reason is that there's a sense that the money isn't going to pay off until later. Men don't tend to feel the consequences of the lack of paid family leave as severely as women do. We need to have people in office who are willing to explain and defend those kinds of investments, and how it makes perfect sense to spend money now in order to prevent problems later.”

With this approach to policy making, issues that are traditionally viewed as that of “women’s interest” become urgent economic legislative endeavors. 

“On the legislative front, I think the historical pattern would hold,” said Sive, regarding the impact that women’s increased presence in Congress could have this year and beyond. “Which is to say that, at least on the Democratic side, the women legislators who are newly elected would be like their sisters who preceded them — interested in issues like equal pay, reproductive rights, and related policies. Most of them have that kind of policy agenda as candidates.”

On November 7, Sive and Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris Public Policy, will sit for a discussion and book signing in which they will explore both the reasons for the dearth of women in executive office and the strategies for breaking down these last barriers to women’s participation in public leadership and policy making.