The increase in the number of women elected to public office is one of the most visible and significant changes in U.S. politics over the past fifty years. This change has been particularly noticeable in legislatures. Between 1970 and 2019, the number of women state legislators grew more than sevenfold, increasing from just over 300 to 2,145, and women now occupy 29 percent of all state legislative seats. Nationally, after the 2018 election cycle, women held historic high numbers of House and Senate seats, 24 percent and 26 percent respectively. Despite these remarkable changes, it is fitting for Jennifer Piscopo to remind us during this centennial year that women remain severely underrepresented in governing institutions. The dearth of women policymakers has implications for democratic theory and public policy.
One of the core tenets of our representative democracy is that the substantive interests found within the polity should be represented in government through deliberation. Several studies have found such substantive representation depends to a significant degree on descriptive representation. That is, we know that there is a strong connection between who representatives are and the policies they pursue in government. In legislatures, women are generally more likely to focus on issues particularly relevant to women (e.g., reproductive rights, women’s health, childcare, family leave, education, discrimination, and social welfare). From decades of research it is clear, as Jane Mansbridge has put it, “descriptive representation by gender improves substantive outcomes for women in every polity for which we have a measure.”
The relationship between women’s descriptive and substantive representation is not a simple one, however. It is more multifaceted than usually depicted. As Beth Reingold, Kirsten Widner, and I note, when studying gender and representation, scholars and other observers have often assumed that there are no racial differences among female representatives and no gender differences among minority representatives. In our forthcoming book Race, Gender, and Legislative Representation, we write, “More often than not, attention has been paid only to what factors influence the descriptive and substantive representation of women or to what factors influence the descriptive and substantive representation of African Americans and/or Latinxs.” Such “single-axis” approaches to the study of representation, we believe, obscure the distinctive contributions women of color make to public policy. Instead, politics and political representation should be analyzed using an intersectional lens that is attentive to the race-gendered histories, legacies, and institutional context of policymaking in the United States. “Intersectionality cautions against generalizing about representation across differences in race and gender and suggests that any single-axis conception of marginalized group interests risks concealing or distorting the representational advocacy provided by women of color, while privileging that provided by white women and men of color.”
Using such an intersectional approach yields some interesting and instructive findings. For example, examining electoral gains of women through a race-gendered lens, as opposed to only a gendered one, reveals that women of color were the mainspring of the much-lauded “year of the woman” in both 1992 and 2018, as they were elected to public office at faster rates than either white women or men of color. Moreover, studies of state legislatures show that, once elected, women of color distinguish themselves as race-gender policy leaders. For example, Latina and African American women legislators are at the forefront when it comes to adding health and education proposals to legislative agendas, two policy domains widely considered to be of overlapping concern to women, Latinx, and African American constituencies. Among Democrats, they sponsor more of this legislation than any other subgroup of lawmakers.
Women of color are also leaders in intersectional policymaking. In general, intersectional proposals are bills that address issues from more than one perspective, paying particular attention to multiple and varied forms of inequality, marginalization, deprivation, and oppression. My colleagues and I find that collectively, women of color tend to introduce more legislation that simultaneously addresses the concerns of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor. For example, because of their presence and power in state legislatures, African American and Latina women mitigated some of the more punitive and restrictive aspects of state welfare reform measures of the late 1990s.
Early in her essay, Piscopo cautions that without both voting and officeholding, “the promise of representative democracy remains unrealized.” I wholeheartedly agree. I have argued elsewhere that continued confidence in our political institutions depends on ensuring that they include significant numbers of representatives from historically disempowered groups. It is indeed important for women to be represented in government at much higher levels than they presently are. However, as we strategize how to make that happen, we must be attentive to the reality that the race-gendered composition of governing institutions also matters.