The Twenty Percent
October 14, 2014—Associate Professor of Government Michele Swers spends a lot of time researching the behavior of Congress from their policy preferences to their appearances on Sunday morning talk shows. Her recent book, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate examines the influence of gender on the policies and priorities of female senators, who constitute only 20 percent of the Senate. She sat down with us to talk about whether gender matters in Congress and what she expects for the 2014 midterm elections.
Georgetown College: How did you become interested in this line of research?
Michele Swers: When I was a graduate student, there was a very famous book on Congress called Congress: The Electoral Connection. It said that all members of Congress are going to respond to their constituency to get re-elected, so it really doesn’t matter who you elect. At the same time, maybe 10–12 percent of Congress was [female]. Does it matter that there are so few women? According to that theory, it doesn’t matter at all. I wanted to look at what happens when women are in Congress. Is there any difference in their policy priorities?
GC: Does gender matter?
MS: I think everybody brings in their [own] experiences, so your experience as a woman is going to be different than someone else’s experience as a woman. But there are certain gender aspects of it that you are bringing to the table—in the way that you see issues and in the way you experience things.
I think [gender] colors how they look at issues, and it does affect what they decide to make a priority. But they don’t walk in every day and say, “I’m a female senator doing women’s issues.” You are trying to represent all the constituents in the state, but you might see things differently or be more receptive to what certain people bring to you because of your experience.
GC: Does the general public have gendered assumptions about what female politicians care about?
MS: We’ve called things women’s issues in the public mind, and [women] have more credibility on them. They can become leaders on [those topics], and people will defer to them. But on the other hand, they don’t want to be pigeonholed into those issues as their only issue.
You’re always going to do what your state needs and what your state allows. So within the basket of issues that a state might support, you might see a woman do a little bit more on issues that would help children and families. But she’s going to do what’s in the basket of what that state needs.
GC: There are only 20 women in the Senate – 16 Democrats and 4 Republicans. After your research, why do you think women are still underrepresented?
MS: Part of it is incumbency. So even though we don’t like members of Congress, we elect them at rates of over 90 percent. We don’t like Congress because we judge Congress on national standards, but we like our congressman okay because we judge him on local standards.
Women started coming into Congress, really in larger numbers, after the feminist movement, where the incumbency advantage was already well established. So women will have their best chance at winning a seat when an incumbent retries or when there’s an open seat. There are other factors. Even when you have an open seat, you don’t see women competing for office, and that part is more mysterious.
GC: What do you expect for the 2014 midterms?
MS: This has been a long recession, and people are responding to the economy and the feeling that the country is on the wrong track. And if you feel like the country is on the wrong track, then the person to blame is the president. The president’s party, year after year in midterm elections, always loses seats. For President Obama, there’s a certain floor because certain districts are always going to be more democratic or more republican. President Obama and the Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010. In that way, Republicans have made the gains they are going to make.
I think the nature of the electorate that goes into midterm elections is important. The Democrats do seem to have a problem mobilizing their electorate and that’s hurting them. In a midterm year, your electorate is going to be older, whiter, and more conservative, and that’s going to favor Republicans these days.
Learn more in Michele Swers’s latest book, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate.