To achieve equal opportunity and full participation for American women and girls demands leadership, dedication and political will — and the will to expend political capital — at the top. All the evidence tells us that our odds of making progress on gender equality will be much higher with a woman president.
— Nancy L. Cohen, LA Times
The following column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 6, 2016.
Sexism is driving women away from the GOP front-runner Donald Trump and the Republican Party, potentially providing a windfall to Hillary Clinton in a general election.
But to ride women’s discontent into the Oval Office, of course, Clinton has to win the Democratic nomination. And while she has maintained a strong advantage with women voters overall, she’s not doing well with all women. White millennial women favor Bernie Sanders.
Perhaps that’s because the best rationale for Clinton’s candidacy hasn’t been effectively communicated to millennial women. There is a powerful case to be made for electing a woman president, and it has nothing to do with the straw man of identity politics.
The most compelling reason women should vote for Hillary Clinton? Pure self-interest.
The global scholarship leaves no doubt: Women in political office make it a priority to advance rights, equality and opportunity for women and girls, in a way and to a degree that men in power overwhelmingly do not.
A large body of research has been devoted to answering a fundamental question: Do women substantively represent women more effectively than men do? In hundreds of studies examining large data sets of roll call votes, bill sponsorship, laws enacted and other measures the answer is clear: “Across time, office, and political parties,” political scientist Beth Reingold writes in a comprehensive review, “women, more often than men, take the lead on women’s issues, no matter how such issues are defined.”
Consider just a handful of these studies. Georgetown University’s Michele Swers has found, among other things, that both Democratic and moderate Republican women in Congress have been more likely than men in either party to advance legislation on child care and domestic violence. Even when men and women in the same party hold similar opinions — on reproductive health issues, for example — it is the women officeholders who step up. This is particularly clear at the state level, where legislatures with more women have passed fewer abortion restrictions. Another study analyzed every instance in which a U.S. House seat switched between a woman and man between 1973 and 2002. Controlling for multiple factors, the model generated by that analysis predicts that Democratic and Republican women will offer three times more feminist bills than their male counterparts will.
It’s much the same in other nations. An analysis of 31 countries (including the United States) found a statistically significant relationship: the higher the proportion of women lawmakers, the greater the number of laws enacted to advance gender equality. Jennifer Piscopo, an Occidental College political scientist, examined 18,700 bills introduced in Argentina’s lower house over a 10-year period and found that nearly three-quarters of women’s rights bills were written by women.
Such findings don’t mean that all female officeholders seek to advance women’s rights, or that women govern only from the standpoint of gender. But the research does speak strongly to the fact that women and men in power have different priorities.
And then there’s the danger that if women aren’t at the table, they might be on the menu. In late 2009, the all-male Senate Democratic leadership team met privately to decide what would be included in the final Affordable Care Act. They eliminated a women’s healthcare amendment that had passed overwhelmingly in committee, and that included coverage for such things as contraceptives and mammograms. The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), had to demand its reinstatement just as the caucus was about to vote on the final bill.
“You have to include the women,” she told then-majority leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Had she not stood her ground, with the support of other women senators, the interests of 51% of the population would have been sacrificed in the most consequential piece of legislation in a generation.
The scholarship, and anecdotal evidence like Mikulski’s story, argues for women taking their distinctive interests and concerns as women into account when they decide how to vote. But we don’t often hear about the interest-based case for electing women.
Certainly part of the explanation is that women voters care about many issues, not just “women’s issues.” Still, their aversion to explicitly advocating for themselves, I suspect, stems from fear of being labeled selfish. From childhood, women imbibe the notion that selfishness, like ambition, may make them unlikable and untrustworthy. This is part of how we get to a moment in which white working-class men’s overwhelming support for Trump or Sanders is called a “movement,” while women’s support for Clinton is dismissed as touchy-feely “identity politics.”
The U. S. has made tremendous advances on equal rights over the last 40 years, and yet we have a ways to go. Women are paid less than men in almost every job and at every level. Ours is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers. On broad measures of gender equality, the United States ranks an unimpressive 28th in the world.
To achieve equal opportunity and full participation for women and girls in all areas of American life demands leadership, dedication and political will — and especially the will to expend political capital — at the top.
All the evidence tells us that our odds of making progress on gender equality will be much higher if the president is a woman.