A few days before the election, Rachel blogged that “women were poised to make gains in election” and asked, “If the number of women increases, do you think this could affect policies or do you think we will start to see the women politicians join the ranks of the ‘good old boys’?”
There are two reports from the Institute For Women’s Policy Research that suggest that more female legislators does mean more feminist and pro-woman laws will be passed. The first, “Does Women’s Representation in Elected Office Lead to Women-Friendly Policy?” (pdf link) looks at how many laws benefiting women, such as “protection from violence, access to income support (through welfare and child support collection), women-friendly employment protections, legislation protecting sexual minorities, and reproductive rights,” have been passed in each of the fifty states. ((The three best states for women, by this measure: Hawaii, Vermont and Washington. The three worst: Tennessee, Mississippi, and Idaho.))
What the IWPR found is that the more women are in elected office in a state, and the more powerful those elected offices are, the more woman-friendly legislation gets passed.
As the authors point out, the direction of causation is ambiguous. Maybe more women in office leads to more “woman-friendly” laws; but it’s also possible that states that are open to these laws are more likely to elect women legislators. I think it’s likely that both are true.
On an aggregate level, women’s presence in legislatures and other state-level elected offices is closely associated with better policy for women. This suggests that having women in elected office may be important to encouraging states to adopt policies relevant to women’s lives. Conversely, women’s resources and rights may influence the number of women elected to public office.
The second IWPR report, “Gender Differences in Bill Sponsorship on Women’s Issues” (pdf link), examines who sponsors which bills. From the report:
Within each party, women are more likely to sponsor women’s issue bills than are their male colleagues.
Across both Congresses, between 23 percent and 27 percent points more Democratic women than Democratic men utilized their scarce resources of time, staff, and political capital to develop women’s issue legislation. Among Republicans, 83 percent of Republican women sponsored a women’s issue bill in the 103rd Congress, compared to just 37 percent of Republican men. However, in the 104th Congress, the proportion of Republican women sponsoring women’s issue bills dropped to 59 percent, only 12 percentage points more than Republican men. This 24 percentage point drop was largely due to the election of six conservative Republican freshman women, none of whom sponsored any type of women’s issue bill. […]
The influence of gender on a member’s legislative behavior is highly dependent on his/her specific political ideology. All Democratic women and moderate Republican women are much more likely to sponsor women’s issue bills than are their male colleagues of the same party and ideology. In contrast, conservative Republican women are not more likely to sponsor women’s issue bills than are their conservative Republican male counterparts.
So it appears likely that having women in government does make a difference to what laws are proposed and passed.
Although these reports are several years old, they’re especially relevant today, since we have now elected record-breaking numbers of women to congress, and we will soon have the first female Speaker of the House in US history. (I really love Jen’s take on that).