Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

A Kinder, Gentler, More Female Congress?

One of the big pieces of news from this year’s elections was the large increase in the number of women elected to Congress. Eleven women won U.S. Senate races — five newcomers and six incumbents — meaning the upper body of the 113th Congress will have a record 20 female members. The House also will have more women than ever with 83.

For many, this brings hope that Congress will become a kinder and gentler place, one more capable of compromise and consensus and, ultimately, greater productivity. Women, the argument goes, are less confrontational and aggressive than men and more likely to empathize and work with political opponents.

This proposition is, of course, greatly exaggerated, if not fundamentally inaccurate. It is commonly held among practitioners on the left and within the gender and women’s studies crowd. These individuals continually are on the lookout for male-female differences that go beyond basic biology. Indeed, the academics among them need to find disparate behavior across the sexes to legitimize their own existence.

To be sure, there are significant and interesting political differences between men and women, but they generally have little to do with the kind of gender traits feminist theorists like to talk about. By far the most dramatic distinction in American politics is ideological. Women are much more liberal and Democratic. The 2012 election exit polls revealed that 55 percent of women voted for Barack Obama, only 45 percent of men did. Of the 103 women who will be members of the 113th Congress when it is sworn in this month, only 27 are Republicans (four senators and 23 House members).

If you are on the left, like many who promote the thesis of innate gender differences in political behavior, you are therefore prone to view women as more conciliatory. That’s not the case from a conservative position, however.

According to ideology scores derived from roll-call votes, 12 of the 30 most liberal members of the 112th House were women — and the group does not include Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., since she is 43rd most liberal. North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx is the most conservative woman, but 28 men are to the right of her.
This notion that women are committed to making legislative peace rather than legislative war comes largely from observations of liberal academics who view female lawmakers in the opposition as more persuadable than their male colleagues. But this mainly is because Republican women tend to be more moderate ideologically than Republican men.

There were five GOP women in the 112th Senate and all but Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire were in the most centrist quarter of the party’s conference. From the perspective of conservatives, women members of Congress don’t seem particularly interested in making deals. For every moderate Democratic senator like Clare McCaskill and Mary Landrieu, there are several liberal Barbara Boxers and Barbara Mikulskis.

It’s hard to name just one moderate returning female Democrat in the House — and, with the possible exception of a member who just retook her seat in Arizona, there isn’t an obvious candidate among the newcomers either.

In politics, whether as voters or legislators, women are as dumb (or smart) as men. The principal difference is not how the sexes regard other human beings but what they think about policy. Just why are women so much more liberal than men? Some of it might have to do with income, but when controlling for indicators of affluence women are still more liberal. Given that men and women have quite similar views on abortion — women are slightly more pro-choice than men — it is not that issue, either.

Research demonstrates it is on matters like guns, health care, and education that the schism is widest. The feeling is that women’s maternal instincts kick in and they place greater emphasis on protection than freedom. Note that this explanation does have important biological or sociological roots but is manifest in policy preferences, not a certain kind of legislative behavior.

In fact, some say the “gender gap” in political attitudes and partisanship is actually a function of men’s fickleness. Perhaps our focus should not be on the fairer sex. Since 1972, the male vote has been more volatile when measured against election-to-election changes in the parties’ performance at the presidential level. It has swung about 14 percent more than women’s.

Men, for example, were discernibly more Republican in 1996 than they were in 1976 and in 1988 than they were in 1980 — and the Republican candidates did better in the second half of those pairings.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Relations at N.C. State University.