October 11, 2013 at 9:10 am

Political Power: How Female Legislators Impact Policy Decisions

By Corinne Colbert

If you don’t think it matters whether women serve in legislatures, Dr. Sarah Poggione has a story for you.

In the late 1990s, an all-male committee of the Pennsylvania state senate was deciding which benefits to mandate in health insurance coverage sold in the state. On the advice of Democrat Allyson Schwartz, the chairman included annual gynecological exams for women. Later, though, Schwartz heard that the proposed coverage had been changed to just Pap smears—meaning poor women would still have to pay for the office visit and any other medically necessary procedures.

“The Republican male chairman didn’t know what happens in a yearly gynecological exam,” says Poggione. Once Schwartz explained, the language was changed back.

Educating male colleagues on the finer points of women’s health care is just one effect women have on policy, says Poggione, Associate Professor of Political Science. She specializes in gender issues in politics, particularly at the state level.

Illustration by Christina Ullman

Illustration by Christina Ullman

For example, she has found that the old saw about women being more liberal than men is actually true—at least where welfare reform was concerned.

“Even after I accounted for ideology, party, district demographics, and personal characteristics, gender still had an effect,” she says. “Women held more liberal preferences even than men in the same party.”

It’s not that women are touchy-feely, big-hearted softies, Poggione says. Even in these more liberated times, women are still more likely to be primary caregivers to children and the elderly, and those experiences give them real-world perspectives on issues such as health care and education.

As a result, women were more likely to consider exemptions to work requirements for those caring for young children, for example, or health care coverage for children. For Democrats, it’s a matter of social responsibility; for Republicans, it’s a pragmatic solution to a real problem. But either way, “there was a greater willingness among women to think of exemptions,” Poggione says.

“That’s where you see an effect on policy—on the ground,” she says.

Women’s roles as caregivers also affect their credibility as politicians, Poggione says. Where it once was considered a liability, being a woman increasingly is an asset.

Dr. Sarah Poggione. Photo by Ben Siegel.

Dr. Sarah Poggione. Photo by Ben Siegel.

“Gender signals competency on certain issues, such as education,” she says. Women aren’t automatically viewed as competent on the economy or security, but focusing on those issues gives them credibility without diminishing their assumed credibility in education and health care. “It appears that when men do the opposite, they do get hurt,” Poggione says.

That may have been the case in the 2012 election cycle, widely viewed as a triumph for women. Men who held controversial views on issues such as abortion and rape lost their races; both the U.S. House and Senate saw record numbers of women elected. New Hampshire tapped the nation’s first all-female Congressional delegation (as well as a female governor).

New Hampshire is an example of another of Poggione’s interests: how context affects gender differences in politics. In the case of the Granite State, she says, women benefit from a political culture that emphasizes public service as a public good, as well as its tradition of door-to-door campaigning.

However, Poggione warns, women are neither a bloc nor selfless.

“Women aren’t monolithic,” Poggione says. “The institution you’re in and your constituency will really influence what you’re going to do. And women are just as strategic as men in wanting to get re-elected and to work their way up in the party.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers Ohio University research, scholarship and creative activity.

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