An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2016

Women & Legislative Leadership in the U.S. Congress: Representing Women’s Interests in Partisan Times

Michele L. Swers
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Women are drastically underrepresented in American political institutions. This has prompted speculation about the impact of electing more women on policy and the functioning of government. Examining the growing presence of women in Congress, I demonstrate that women do exhibit unique policy priorities, focusing more on the needs of various groups of women. However, the incentive structure of the American electoral system, which rewards ideological purity, means that women are not likely to bring more consensus to Washington. Indeed, women’s issues are now entrenched in the partisan divide. Since the 1990s, the majority of women elected to Congress have been Democrats, who have pursued their vision of women’s interests while portraying Republican policies as harmful to women. In response, Republican women have been deployed to defend their party, further reducing the potential for bipartisan cooperation.

MICHELE L. SWERS is Professor of American Government in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Her research interests include congressional elections and policy-making, and women in politics. Her books examining the policy behavior of women in Congress include The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress (2002) and Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (2013). She is also coauthor of Women and Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence (with Julie Dolan and Melissa Deckman, 2016).