Anti-abortion Policymaking and Women’s Representation

AuthorMichele L. Swers,Beth Reingold,Tracy Osborn,Rebecca J. Kreitzer
Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 403 –420
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920903381
To what extent and under what conditions do women in
elective office lead the way on conservative women’s
interests and issues? Voluminous research has established
that women’s descriptive and substantive representation
are strongly linked: women in public office are more
likely to champion women’s interests than their male
counterparts are, all else being equal. Yet, with very few
exceptions, the women’s issues examined in the research
literature are defined and operationalized as either exclu-
sively feminist or ideologically inclusive (Celis and
Childs 2012, 2018). The few studies that examine repre-
sentational activity on conservative women’s issues, such
as anti-abortion policy, find that what little activity there
is, is primarily driven by conservative Republican men
(Osborn 2012; Swers 2002, 2013). Nonetheless, these
studies suggest that conservative policy leadership is not
necessarily an exception to the women-represent-women
narrative; occasionally, women legislators may emerge as
policy leaders on some conservative women’s issues.1
We propose that women’s legislative leadership on
conservative initiatives may be systematically con-
strained and conditional. We argue women’s conserva-
tive policy leadership is limited to (1) relatively small
numbers of ideologically conservative Republican
women (CRW) who (2) can readily and credibly frame
their efforts as “pro-woman” while (3) furthering their
party’s strategic interests. To test these propositions, we
examine an issue at the heart of conservative legislative
activity in twenty-one state houses, from 1997 to 2012:
abortion. Our analysis focuses on who sponsors anti-
abortion legislation and, for comparison’s sake, who
sponsors contending pro-abortion rights measures. Our
sample of state-sessions allows us to gauge the links
between women’s descriptive and substantive represen-
tation among a large number of diverse lawmakers situ-
ated in a wide array of partisan environments in the
years leading up to the recent, post-2010 surge of anti-
abortion policy adoption in the states (Kreitzer 2015).
Equipped with a large sample of conservative legisla-
tors introducing a variety of restrictive abortion mea-
sures across multiple states and sessions, we examine
the complex interactions of gender, ideology, issue
framing, and partisanship in women’s representation.
Our results indicate CRW in state legislatures are more
likely than their male counterparts to sponsor anti-abortion
903381PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920903381Political Research QuarterlyReingold et al.
1Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
2The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
3The University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA
4Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Beth Reingold, Departments of Political Science and Women’s, Gender,
& Sexuality Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA.
Anti-abortion Policymaking and
Women’s Representation
Beth Reingold1, Rebecca J. Kreitzer2, Tracy Osborn3,
and Michele L. Swers4
To what extent and under what conditions do women in elective office lead the way on conservative women’s interests?
The few existing studies find that, contrary to most research on women’s descriptive and substantive representation,
legislative activity on conservative women’s issues in the United States is driven primarily by Republican men. This
article takes a new look at the heart of conservative policymaking by analyzing the sponsorship of anti-abortion bills
in twenty-one state houses, from 1997 to 2012. We find that conservative Republican women stand at the forefront
of anti-abortion policy leadership in state legislatures. However, their distinctive leadership is highly constrained; it
is most likely to emerge in policy contexts that use women-centered issue frames and within competitive partisan
environments. These complex interactions between gender, ideology, issue framing, and partisanship call for new
theories and concepts of women’s representation as not only gendered, but also deeply embedded in the strategic
interplay of polarized, partisan politics.
abortion, representation, conservative women, Republican women, U.S. state legislators
404 Political Research Quarterly 74(2)
measures, but this link between women’s descriptive and
substantive representation is observable only under certain
conditions. Gender gaps in anti-abortion bill sponsorship
are most pronounced when the legislation is framed in
terms of protecting women’s health and safety rather than
fetal life or religious/moral principles. Furthermore, higher
party competition in the state government enhances this
relationship. Thus, much like their liberal Democratic sis-
ters, CRW are representing women’s interests as they
define them, and in doing so, are placing themselves—and
women’s interests—at the forefront of their party’s efforts
to restrict abortion and maintain power. If the numbers of
CRW elected to state legislatures continue to increase and
partisan politics become more polarized and competitive,
we can expect these trends to become even more pro-
nounced (Osborn et al. 2019).
This study has important implications for women’s
political representation, but not simply because it
extends the generalizability of theories regarding
descriptive and substantive representation. Rather, our
attention to the context of state legislatures and parties,
the contingencies of issue framing, and intricacies of
gender, partisanship, and ideology all point to a more
complex theory of women’s representation and wom-
en’s political interests. Our study provides further evi-
dence that women’s representation is not only deeply
gendered, but also deeply embedded in the strategic
interplay of polarized, partisan politics.
Conservativism and Women’s
Decades of research on the impact of women in elective
office demonstrate that representation in the United States
is gendered (Reingold 2008; Swers and Rouse 2011).
Throughout the policymaking process, female office-
holders are more likely than their male colleagues to act
for women or women’s interests. Nowhere is this link
between gender identity and representational activity
more clearly and consistently demonstrated than in the
research on legislators’ policy leadership.
Across time, office, and parties, female representa-
tives are the ones more likely to care about, talk about,
and legislate women’s interests (Berkman and O’Connor
1993; Bratton 2002; Bratton and Haynie 1999; Bratton,
Haynie, and Reingold 2006; Carroll 2008; Dodson 2006;
Fridkin and Kenney 2014; Gerrity, Osborn, and Mendez
2007; MacDonald and O’Brien 2011; Orey et al. 2006;
Osborn 2012; Osborn and Mendez 2010; Pearson and
Dancey 2011; Reingold 2000; Saint-Germain 1989;
Swers 2002, 2013; Thomas 1994; Wolbrecht 2002).
These gender gaps in women’s substantive representation
are revealed in interviews, surveys, constituent commu-
nications, committee deliberations, floor debates, and in
the bills that lawmakers sponsor. Remarkably, they per-
sist across a variety of conceptual and operational defini-
tions of women’s issues or interests.
While most scholars broadly conceive of women’s
issues as those particularly salient to women (Carroll
1994), they differ on what that entails. Some issues are
salient because they primarily affect women as women,
while others are salient because they reflect the “tradi-
tional” concerns that women as primary caretakers have
for others. Accordingly, some studies distinguish “wom-
en’s” or “women-specific” issues like abortion, domestic
violence, sexual harassment, and child care from more
general social welfare issues, such as education, health-
care, and poverty assistance (MacDonald and O’Brien
2011; Osborn 2012; Reingold 2000; Saint-Germain
1989; Swers 2002, 2013; Thomas 1994). Similarly,
researchers differ in whether and how they define wom-
en’s issues along ideological lines. Some studies distin-
guish feminist initiatives promoting women’s rights or
equality from general, ideologically inclusive social wel-
fare issues (MacDonald and O’Brien 2011; Saint-
Germain 1989; Swers 2002, 2013). Others restrict
women’s issues to those that are feminist (and women-
centered), or at the very least not anti-feminist (Bratton
2002; Bratton and Haynie 1999; Wolbrecht 2002). Still
others impose no ideological restrictions (Gerrity,
Osborn, and Mendez 2007; Osborn 2012; Reingold
2000; Thomas 1994) or no a priori definition at all
(Volden, Wiseman, and Wittmer 2018).
Yet, amidst this conceptual variation, one notable
omission exists: hardly any of these studies delineate
conservative women-specific issues as a distinct ana-
lytic category on which to examine policy leadership
(Celis and Childs 2012). Moreover, the few studies that
do analyze lawmakers’ conservative policy alternatives
on “women’s issues” uncover a glaring exception to the
“rule” that women are more likely to act for women:
advocacy of these policy alternatives is dominated by
Republican men (Osborn 2012; Swers 2002, 2013). In
stark contrast to the women’s-issue leadership of
Democratic women, Republican women have been in
the shadows of conservative women’s-issue legislative
Analyzing sponsorship and co-sponsorship in
Congress, Swers (2002, 2013) finds that a subset of con-
servative Republican men drives the majority of anti-
feminist legislation. Similarly, Osborn’s (2012) study of
women’s representation in ten state houses reveals that
Republican men control the lion’s share of the anti-femi-
nist agenda. Specifically, “men Republicans tended to
dominate bill introduction in three subcategories: sex
offenders, marriage and divorce, and abortion” (p. 108),
proposing uniformly conservative measures. Osborn and
Kreitzer’s (2014) time-series analysis of bill sponsorship

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