What Differences Do Women Make in Congress? (with Michele Swers)

By Kevin R. Kosar January 3, 2022

The topic of this episode is, “What differences do women make in Congress?”

My guest is Michele Swers, professor of American government at Georgetown University. She studies Congress, congressional elections, and women in politics. She has written a lot of research articles and book chapters, and also is the author of two books on women in Congress. The first one is titled The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress. The second book is titled Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate. And, I would be remiss if I did not mention, she is the coauthor of Women and Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution, and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be. And that is why we are here: to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation.

I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.

It is to Professor Swers we now turn to learn about women in Congress. Professor Swers, welcome to the program.

Michele Swers:

Thank you, Kevin. Thanks so much for having me. I’m a big fan of your podcast.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Oh, thanks for saying. Let’s start with a really simple question. How many women are in Congress today?

Michele Swers:               

So, right now you have 120 women in the House. Eighty-nine are Democrats, 31 are Republicans. And in the Senate, you have 24 women, 16 Democrats, 8 Republicans. From those numbers, you can tell that there are more women who are Democrat than Republicans. And that’s because the number of women really started to increase in 1992, and people called that the Year of the Woman, but it was really the Year of the Democratic Women. It was Democrats who elected more women at that time. They had a pretty good year that year. Even in years where Republicans had good years, like 1994, they elected more women, but not a lot more women.

In 2018, Democrats elected another Year of the Woman, but they elected more women of color. So there was a lot of attention to that. And that’s when I’m sure your listeners know that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comes into the picture and Ayanna Pressley and some others. And then in 2020, Republicans did have a very good year. They went from 13 women to 31 in the House of Representatives, and they elected a greater mix of women and minorities. It was a good year from their perspective.

But you can tell though that by these numbers, when Democrats are in charge, women have more access to the majority and seats of power. Women are about 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House, and that means they have some seniority level. In the House, on the Democratic side, anyway, committee assignments work based on seniority, so you have more women who have access to be chairs. So Rosa DeLauro, head of Appropriations, or Carolyn Maloney as the Oversight chair, Maxine Waters at Financial Services — important committees.

On the other hand, for Republicans, women are only about 15 percent of their caucus. They’ve had a woman in the conference chair position for a very long time — obviously turnover with different women. Most recently, Liz Cheney was pushed out, and Elise Stefanik is now the conference chair. But they don’t have as many women with seniority. There are not as many women who will reach those committee chairmanships when Republicans are in charge.

Right now you do have Kay Granger at Appropriations. She’s the ranking member, so maybe she’ll become the chair if Republicans take over in 2022. And Virginia Foxx at Education and Labor, she would need a waiver, so she would like a waiver. And if she doesn’t get it, I think Elise Stefanik wants the position. But you don’t have that many Republican women with seniority. There’s also Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and she could end up becoming chair of Energy and Commerce if things go in the majority.

A lot of the women that came in were elected in 2020, and so they’re not very senior. It’ll be a few years before they could develop into those leadership positions if they stay in Congress.

Kevin Kosar:                    

If I can just do a quick follow up on this question — you were highlighting some partisan differences. One thing I observed after the last election was, you had Kevin McCarthy, the head of the House Republicans, on Twitter, bragging about how the GOP had brought women into the party. You’ve studied this stuff for so long. Is this new, the GOP and the House bragging about getting more women, Republican women, into the chamber?

Michele Swers:               

Yes and no. Republicans don’t like to play what they call identity politics. They don’t want to have policy that is necessarily focused on particular groups. But they do value having diversity in the ranks, because they know that Democrats particularly are going to hit them on this. Democrats have been talking about Republicans as being engaged in a war on women for many years, and it’s much easier to push back on that if you have more diverse faces in your caucus. Republicans also recognize that the country is changing, and you have more minorities in the population — more Latinos, particularly, they want to reach out to. And so they do want to elect a more diverse set of members of Congress. And when they do, they are very likely to push them to the front.

Where they differ from Democrats, though, is diversity is not as big of a value within the party for elections. On the Democratic side, for a long time, you have an infrastructure of groups like EMILY’s List and training organizations which are designed to reach out to women to try to recruit them to run for office and fund them. Republicans don’t have that deep bench because it’s not something that their donors tend to respond to. So the organizations they have, something called VIEW PAC, Winning For Women. Elise Stefanik really pushed this through her E-PAC, which is her leadership PAC. Those are relatively new, and they don’t raise the sums of money that you see being raised by EMILY’s List, because their donor base is just not as responsive to those kind of calls.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Excellent. Thank you for that. One thing I’ve come across in the political science literature is that a number of scholars argue, quite persuasively from what I have seen, that women are more effective in Congress. Now, measuring legislative effectiveness is a vexing, complicated thing — we’ll put that out there. But, what’s your take on the topic?

Michele Swers:               

I’m in agreement with you that it depends on how you’re measuring effectiveness and what you mean by effectiveness. I think you can certainly say that there’s evidence that women are more active, perhaps more productive. So you have people that look at things like bringing home money to the district and projects to the district. Lazarus and Steigerwalt, in their book Gendered Vulnerability, and Anzia and Berry in their article, they both find that women are more likely to get federal dollars for projects back at home. So if you consider that to be effectiveness, then they’re more effective in that way.

People who look at bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship, like Craig Volden, Alan Wiseman, Dana Wittmer, and others, do find that women sponsor more bills, they co-sponsor more bills. So they’re more active in that way. But there’s mixed evidence about how far those bills get. Some of that depends on what are the bills about. So if the bills are about issues like healthcare, those are pretty contentious issues that have a hard time advancing in Congress generally. They find that women, when they’re in the minority party, maybe because there’s more of a history of consensus building when you’re in the minority, that women are passing more of their bills as minority party members. But they don’t pass more of their bills as majority party members. This difference gets more stark as we have more polarization in Congress and that consensus-oriented leadership style is less valued.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Now, legislative effectiveness is an important topic. But that’s not the only thing that matters when we think about legislators in Congress or women in Congress. Your first book, The Difference Women Make, analyzed the House of Representatives. What did you find?

Michele Swers:               

I wrote that book right after — the focus of it was right after that first Year of the Woman, the 1992 elections, when you could have more of an analysis that was more systematic rather than anecdotal interviews. And what I was trying to determine is, there’s an assumption in political science that members of Congress, their number one concern is to get reelected. We know that from David Mayhew’s Electoral Connection. So if that’s the case, they just need to be responsive to the district. Otherwise, they get voted out. So it should not matter if I elect a man or a woman, a Latino, an African-American, it doesn’t matter, right? It’s just what does the district want, and they have to be responsive to that. So my question was, if I elect women, do I get any different policy priorities? Do they focus on different policies? Because any district can really accept any number of policies, but you just have to take positions and votes within a certain space.

So that’s what the book was really focused on. I looked at basically gender differences in legislative activities: sponsorship, co-sponsorship, what were you doing in committee, what did you push for on the floor, those kinds of things. And I found that generally, the more something is directly connected to policy consequences for women, so when we think of things like women’s rights issues, that the women in Congress were more engaged, they were more involved. They were more likely to push things like paid family leave. And we see that now, the paid family leave in Biden’s legislation. Kirsten Gillibrand had this Family Act that’s partially based on Rosa DeLauro in House, Patty Murray in the Senate. So women were more likely to do something like a paid family leave. A Violence Against Women Act was very much also pushed by a lot of the women in Congress, issues related to pay equity, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, things like that later on. So you saw the most difference on issues that you could connect to consequences for women directly.

On issues that we kind of associate with women, more social welfare type policies, education, general healthcare, there’s not really that much difference between men and women in their level of activism. When you did see difference, it was when women were in the majority party, because then they have access to the agenda and your bills could move somewhere. So you saw some more difference when women were in the majority.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Alright. We just heard a bit about the House. Let’s talk about the Senate. Conveniently, your book Women in the Club focuses on the higher chamber. What did you find there?

Michele Swers:               

When I was doing my work on the Senate, I wanted to focus on those differences related to the women’s rights issues that we expect, but I also wanted to branch out and see if women brought a different perspective based on their experiences, their life experiences as women, to other areas. And so I wanted to also look at defense policy, which is an area where people think that maybe women are less qualified. And I wanted to look at judicial nominations.

In the Senate, members can do more. In the House, you’re really constrained by your committee position. But in the Senate, they get multiple committee positions and they can really do what they want on the floor. So it gave more leeway to be able to see, so where would they focus their attention and what kind of perspective would they bring?

In the area of judicial nominations, what I found was, this is an area that’s really constrained by party politics. An individual senator is expected to support the nominees of their president if they’re of the president’s party. At the time that I’m looking, the nominations are George W. Bush’s nominations to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman who was ever on the Supreme Court. You would expect here that gender would be a primary focus, so maybe some of the Republican women would be reluctant to support somebody who doesn’t support women’s rights in the way that Sandra Day O’Connor did, or something like that. Or they would be pushing for a female nominee. And they did push a little bit for a female nominee, but that, of course, is George W. Bush’s decision as president.

What I saw was that the Democratic women, when they speak on the floor about what’s the reasons that I’m supporting, whether it was John Roberts or Samuel Alito at the time, the Democratic women compared to the Democratic men were more likely to focus on Alito or Roberts’ positions on women’s rights — and on women’s rights beyond abortion politics, so things like pay equity. But on the Republican side, the Republican women down the line were fully supportive of Roberts’ and Alito’s nominations, and were not going to differ, even though they were getting a lot of pressure, particularly the moderate women like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to vote against Roberts and Alito because of their presumed positions on Roe v. Wade (which of course is now before the court).

What was interesting about it was, it also goes to current times when people were pressuring Susan Collins to vote against Kavanaugh. She did a very similar thing. Generally what she would do is, as a Republican, you are expected to support your president’s nominee, and you really don’t get thanked by the other side if you don’t support your president’s nominee, but you most certainly get punished by your side if you don’t support your president’s nominee. So she will go and talk to the nominee, get reassurance that they support stare decisis, and then take that to mean that they would not overturn Roe v. Wade. She’ll announce that she gets this assurance. And then she goes ahead and supports the nominee. Even at the same time, during the same time period, she was voting against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, which was going through Congress, which then Roberts and Alito will later uphold. So it’s separate. Legislation is separate from nominations, even in a really gendered context like that.

When I was looking at defense policy, here I was interested in, people assume women are more pacifist than men. So I looked at things like how were they voting and speaking about the Iraq War. And they were not more pacifist, they were just the same. What matters is ideology. So the more liberal you were, the more likely you were to be opposed to the Iraq War, and that was true for men and for women.

When it came to the type of policies you were supporting, a lot of what happens in Congress and in the Senate is not so much the higher level thinking about strategic planning as it is protecting the defense priorities in my state. So if you’re from Virginia, you really like aircraft carriers and those kind of military ships and things, and you’re going to protect that, and you’re going to protect those bases. So a lot of what the members do is really focused on that. In Maine, they also have military ships there and building of military ships, so they’re interested in protecting that. But where there was gender difference is, the women were more interested in promoting benefits for the military. So what you think of as social welfare issues — health benefits, education benefits, benefits for veterans. The women were more likely to sponsor and co-sponsor in that area, social welfare benefits for the military.

And then the third area I looked at was women’s rights policies. Very similar to the House, I did find that the women in the Senate were more likely to be active on and promote issues related to women’s rights. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was something that was going through at that time, and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And the women, both the Democrats and the Republicans, were more active.

On the Republican side — for Democrats it’s easier because their political base really supports these things. So this is something they’re personally interested in, and it pays political dividends with their base. For Republicans, it’s a little bit trickier. For them, if they’re more moderate, it’s something maybe the base doesn’t support. So they have to decide, how much do I want to get involved in this kind of thing?

For conservatives, these kinds of issues are not really central to Republican Party politics. So if I’m spending a lot of time and energy and political capital on something like Violence Against Women, I’m having to not spend time on other things that may be more personal priorities to me or might get me more sway within the Republican caucus. So they have to be careful about what they want to do.

And there’s a lot of attention to Republican female senators. So if I’m going to go and vote against, let’s say, the Violence Against Women Act, I’m going to get a lot more attention than a Republican man is going to get. And I don’t really enjoy being portrayed as a woman who’s not supporting women. So that was a conflict that these Republican women have to deal with. And you still see it today.

So right now there’s not a lot of action on the Violence Against Women Act because there’s other things going on, but they are in a reauthorization period. And it’s Joni Ernst that Republicans have taxed with trying to reauthorize this. That process is at a standstill, but Ernst is cooperating with Gillibrand to try to push more legislation to how the military deals with sexual assault and sexual harassment. That’s part of the Defense Authorization bill that is theoretically being debated in the Senate right now, although a little bit stalled as they try to come to agreement over amendments.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Follow up question on women in the Senate. The Senate for much of its history was a boys’ club, an old boys’ club. Presently, women are clearly still a distinct minority in the Senate. Yet, by my light, it feels as if women’s power has peaked. Not that it won’t go higher and higher — I assume that it will — but women have been hugely influential. Names come to mind like Sinema, Murkowski, Collins, Snowe. It seems like so much media coverage about what’s going to happen on major policy decisions or judicial nominations has boiled down to the question of, what does this woman, or this woman, or this female senator want to do? Am I right? Am I mistaking things?

Michele Swers:               

It’s true that Collins and Snowe for a very long time held sway, because they’re the center. The women that you’re talking about right now are the moderate women. They have sway as moderates, because you’re the swing vote. And interestingly, right now, more attention is focused on Manchin at the moment than Sinema, but Sinema does support having paid family leave, for example, in the Build Back Better bill. And it is Manchin who is more on the fence about that and concerned about the pay force. So they’re relying on Sinema to try and persuade Manchin.

You have had a lot of women in these various gangs in the past that the Senate uses for things. So you had a gang to try to prevent the nuclear option a few years ago, where they blew up the filibuster on judicial nominations. And yes, Snowe and Collins were both central to that. [There’s been] gangs related to immigration. But these days there’s fewer members in the middle to populate those gangs. So you have these what you might call the filibuster pivots. For the Build Back Better, they’re using reconciliation, so you just need to know who’s the fifty-first vote for something. And that’s why Manchin and Sinema get all of the attention.

But in the past, during the Trump years, Murkowski and Collins were really the ones that were pushing back against getting rid of the Affordable Care Act. They were both concerned about how Medicaid populations would be treated in their states. They did get a lot of attention for that. And, of course, John McCain was the one with the famous thumbs down that provided that final vote to defeat that.

So you do have these women who are in the center, but you also have women on the left and right who also are pretty influential. On the Democratic side, Elizabeth Warren has come into her own with influence. Certainly she has populated with her staff a lot of the Biden administration. The push for childcare policy and the fact that childcare policy is so central in the Build Back Better bill does owe a lot to her influence and her presidential campaign, and focus on that issue in her presidential campaign about the importance of paying for childcare. Patty Murray’s done a lot, too, from her position of power.

So they’re leveraging positions of power that they have, or their ability to gain attention with the media. In the case of Elizabeth Warren, she gets a lot of attention from the media because of her presidential run, because of positions that she’s taken. For Patty Murray, it’s less of her media centrality and more of her ability to work behind the scenes and from the helm of the Senate Health Committee that she’s been able to do a lot in the area of healthcare, of education, of childcare funding, of paid family leave — these are all things that she has a finger in and have been central to Biden’s agenda.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Alrighty. Let me ask my last question, which is going to call upon you to gaze into your crystal ball. What are of the odds that we get a female GOP speaker of the House, or a female Senate majority leader, be it Democrat or Republican, in the next 10 or 20 years?

Michele Swers:               

Yeah, I think that’s where you see the bottleneck. There are very few positions at the top, so the leaders in Congress are reluctant to give up those positions. Nancy Pelosi has been speaker or leader of the party for a pretty long time through many elections. Once she steps down, there’s not really a woman in a high place of leadership. You have the Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, but other than Katherine Clark, you don’t have anybody in those top levels of leadership. People tend to think really of the top levels of leadership as who’s the whip and who’s the leader in the party. And you don’t have any women in that line. The Republicans have never elected anyone beyond conference chair, which is a more of a public facing messaging position and somebody who can help them argue that, yes, we do have women and women can be conservative.

So I think it’s unlikely, actually, in the next five years anyway, that you’re going to see that, because Chuck Schumer is pretty well ensconced in his Senate position. I don’t think Dick Durbin is going anywhere either. That’s your top two positions. Patty Murray would probably be the one who would be most likely to be in line, because she’s held some leadership position and she’s fairly senior. On the Republican side, as I mentioned before, the problem for women is that they lack seniority, so it’s harder for them to advance, because they don’t have the levels of seniority. And so that’s why you see a limited number gaining those positions.

For Stefanik even to become conference chair, there was some grumbling that maybe she was too moderate, and a potential promise made that once this Congress was over, she was interested in being chair of Education and Labor, and so she would step down to take that position. But Virginia Foxx is trying to get a waiver to remain in that committee position. So maybe Stefanik will stay as conference chair. But I don’t think it’s likely that she would advance. Even for Kevin McCarthy, there’s so much difficulty in trying to please the Trump wing of the party and the Freedom Caucus, and Marjorie Taylor Greene having all these meetings with him, that I don’t see someone likes Stefanik being able to take the helm as the speaker.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Alrighty. Professor Michele Swers, thank you for sharing your deep expertise and educating us on the difference women make in Congress.

Michele Swers:               

Thanks so much for having me, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar:                    

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Mikael Good and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you will share this podcast with others, and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. We hope you have a great day.


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