Ideology and Polarization Among Women State Legislators

Date01 November 2019
AuthorJennifer Hayes Clark,Tracy Osborn,Rebecca J. Kreitzer,Emily U. Schilling
Published date01 November 2019
DOI: 10.1111/lsq.12243
University of Iowa
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
University of Houston
Ideology and Polarization Among
Women State Legislators
In early work on women in Congress, scholars consistently identified a ten-
dency among women legislators to be more liberal roll-call voters than male co-
partisans. Recent changes in Congress point to the polarization of women, where
Democratic women remain more liberal than Democratic men but Republican
women are no different from, or more conservative than, Republican men. We use
newly available state legislative roll-call data to determine whether women state
legislators are more liberal or polarized than male copartisans. We find that while
Democratic women state legislators remain consistently more liberal than male
copartisans in most state chambers, Republican women legislators are growing
more conservative. Thus, women state legislators are increasingly polarized in
most U.S. states. Legislator replacement and increasing polarization among state
legislators in office contribute to this effect. We argue that polarization among
women legislators has implications for the representation of women in the states.
Over 30 ye ars ago, Welch (1985) found that women legis-
lators in the House of Representatives from 1972 to 1980 were
more liberal roll-call voters than men i n their respe ctive parties.
Because a ty pically femi nist position on many women’s issues
policies coi ncides with the l iberal end of the politic al spectr um,
this tendency a mong women legislators to be more libe ral vot-
ers served as ev idence that women of both par ties might be more
likely to substantively represent women’s issues in Congress than
men. Though one could cer tainly he sitate to make a strong con-
nection between broad liberal-c onservative voting patter ns and
support for women’s issues in a number of ways, additional stud-
ies of women’s legislative voting patterns revealed a te ndency for
© 2019 Washington University in St. L ouis
648 Tracy Osborn et al.
women in Congress to be more liberal or support women’s is-
sues across par ty lines. Studies of women legislators’ cand idacies
also revealed voters’ tende ncies to evaluate women ca ndidates of
both parties a s more liberal (e.g., McDermott 1997; Sanbonmatsu
and Dolan 2009). These studies r einforce the idea that a trend of
liberalis m in women’s voting is both an expectation for women
legislators and a blunt but usefu l indicator of women legislators’
tendency to represent women.
Recent work on women in the House of Representatives,
however, argues that Republican and Democ ratic women are
increasingly polarize d. Democratic women rem ain more liberal
ideologues than De mocratic men, yet Republican women ap-
pear indist inguishable from, or even more cons ervative than,
Republican men (Frederick 2009). A pattern of increased con-
servatism in Republi can women matches obser vations by other
researchers of women and politics that some Republica n women
are becoming increasi ngly ideologically c onservative (Deck man
2016; Schreiber 2008; Swers 2013; Thomsen 2015). Thus, changes
in voting patterns may sign al changes in how women in different
parties w ill represe nt women’s issues.
Primar ily, trends in whether Republic an women have grown
more conservative focus on the U.S. Congress. We know less
about whether Republican women are growing more conserva-
tive generally, and thus whether women legislators are polariz-
ing, among women in the U.S. state legislatures. In this ar ticle,
we consider whether Democ ratic and Republican women in the
U.S. state legislatures are more l iberal than, more cons ervative
than, or indisti nguishable from their male partisan colleagues. If
women legislators are more libe ral or conservative voters, we al so
examine whether t hese pattern s stem from changes in leg islators’
ideologies, the ty pes of distri cts women represent, and /or the ef-
fects that parties have on the legislative roll-ca ll voting process in
a chamber. To do so, we capitali ze on the coterminous trend of i m-
proved state legislative voting data with t wo new data sets of state
roll-call votes: Shor and McCar ty’s (2011) American Legislatures
Project data a nd Clark’s (2015) roll-call dat a in the states.
We find that while Demo cratic women legislators re main
consistently more liber al than their ma le counterpar ts in many
(but not all) state legislative cha mbers, Republican women leg-
islators are changing— from indistingu ishable from their male
colleague s to more conservative than t heir male colle agues in re -
cent sessions. Thus , we show that women legislators in m any state
649Women State Legislators
chambers are polar izing, si milar to trend s in the U.S. House of
Representatives. We argue that the se ideological change s among
women state legislators have potential i mplications for our under-
standing of whether and how women legisl ators represent women
as a constituency.
Women, Roll-Call Voting, and Representation
Scholars have long used the extent to which women legis-
lators are more liberal voters as a proxy to assess women’s sup-
port for feminist issue positions. For example, Welch (1985) finds
women members of the U.S. House from 1972 to 1980 were more
liberal roll- call voters compared to the men in their pa rties. She
attributes much of this l iberali sm to women legislators’ repres en-
tation of more liberal dist ricts; once she controls for district ideol-
ogy, some differences , such as those betwe en northern male a nd
female Democrats, disappear. Simil arly, Frankovic (1977) shows
that legislator sex has a sig nific ant, independent effect on voting
when one controls for party effects , though she also notes that
women tended to repres ent more liberal distr icts.
Gendered voting patter ns exist in more rec ent Congresses
as well. Using a scale of votes bas ed on Congressional C aucus
for Women’s Issues key votes, Dolan (1997) finds women of both
parties were more w illing to suppor t issues impor tant to the leg-
islative caucus. Democr atic women generally were more li kely
than Republican women to suppor t these issue s. Dolan con-
cludes, however, that Republican women were much more likely
than Republican men to vote in supp ort of the caucus position.
Similarly, using a subset of issues in the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd
Congresses , Norton (1999) argues that gender s ignifi cantly pre-
dicts women’s positions on common interest-group sca les of roll-
call votes. In an ana lysis using the same CQ conser vative coalition
scores as Welch (1985), Vega and Firestone (1995) uncover fewer
difference s between par tisan women and men tha n Welch did.
Nevertheless, they st ill find Republican women are more libera l
roll-call voters th an Republican men. Final ly, Swers (1998, 2002)
shows that gender has a signi ficant, positive ef fect on women’s
votes for women’s issues bil ls in the 103rd Congress, even control-
ling for constituency and pa rty.
Recent work on women in Congress question s this resea rch
consensus on gende red voting, however. Frederick (2009) pos-
its that women legislators in the House of Repre sentatives have

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