Will She Stay or Will She Go? Career Ceilings and Women's Retirement from the U.S. Congress

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.3162/036298005X201680
Published date01 November 2005
Date01 November 2005
AuthorSEAN M. THERIAULT,JENNIFER L. LAWLESS
581Career Ceilings and Women’s Retirement
LEGISLATIVE STUDIES QUARTERLY, XXX, 4, November 2005 581
JENNIFER L. LAWLESS
Brown University
SEAN M. THERIAULT
University of Texas
Will She Stay or Will She Go?
Career Ceilings and Women’s
Retirement from the U.S. Congress
This article offers the first broad-based, systematic, times-series assessment
of the gender dynamics underlying congressional retirement. We extend the body of
work on gender and representation by using the congressional retirement literature to
develop an argument that accounts for the gender gap in the average length of congres-
sional service. Our results indicate that women are less willing than men to remain in
Congress when their ability to influence the legislative agenda stalls. Because of
women’s relatively early departures from the House of Representatives, our analysis
suggests that prospects for women’s representation are less promising than the con-
ventional wisdom suggests.
The 1992 elections brought more new women to Congress than
any other elections in congressional history. One of the new faces of
the 103d Congress was Elizabeth Furse, a Democrat from Oregon. On
the same day that Oregon voters catapulted Furse to the House of
Representatives, they passed a congressional term-limits initiative that
forced members out of their seats after three terms. Furse refused to
endorse the initiative, despite the fact that she was running in a tough
race (and her opponent was using the issue against her). Five years
later, Furse surprised her colleagues and her constituents when she
announced that she planned to retire at the conclusion of the 105th
Congress. A tireless advocate for Native Americans and the environ-
ment, her prospects for rising to a committee leadership position were
not promising. Leaving Congress, Furse advised her colleagues to “focus
on one or two things and try and get satisfaction out of [them]”.1 She
traded in her busy congressional schedule to spend more time at her
Oregon winery and new summer home in France’s Lot Valley.
582 Jennifer L. Lawless and Sean M. Theriault
Dale Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan, also surprised his
congressional colleagues, although for the opposite reason as Furse. In
2003, Kildee announced that he would seek reelection in 2004. Upon
his election in 1976, Kildee quickly climbed the Education and Labor
Committee ladder. Within 10 years, he was a subcommittee chair, where
he remained until the Republicans came to power in 1995. Since then,
Kildee has been the ranking member on the Education and the
Workforce subcommittee. Perhaps in expectation of his retirement, or
perhaps in an attempt to propel it, the Republican state legislature carved
up Kildee’s district when Michigan lost a seat in the 2000 round of
reapportionment. But Kildee, who is well into his 70s, is simply not yet
ready to abandon his stalled congressional career. While Furse sips the
finest wines in Oregon and France, all evidence indicates that Kildee
will continue to serve until he meets death or defeat.
A more-systematic assessment of voluntary retirement from the
U.S. House of Representatives suggests that a gender dynamic may
underlie these anecdotes. From the 98th Congress (1983–84) until the 107th
Congress (2001–02), the average tenure for men who retired was
approximately 40% longer than the average for women (slightly more than
17 years, compared to about 12 years; difference significant at p < .01). As
a result, only 2 of the 20 oldest members of the House to retire were
women (Virginia Smith at 79 and Carrie Meek at 75); only 3 of the 75
oldest members seeking reelection were women; and of the 35 members
who died in office, only 2 were women (Sala Burton and Patsy Mink).2
Despite the fact that women serve as members of Congress for
shorter spells than do men, the studies that examine and predict
congressional retirement do not include gender as an explanatory
variable (see, for example, Hall and Van Houweling 1995; Hibbing
1982; Moore and Hibbing 1998; and Theriault 1998). In large part, this
omission is an artifact of women’s numeric underrepresentation. Until
Furse and 24 other new women went to the House in 1992, there were
too few female members to allow for meaningful comparisons of men’s
and women’s legislative behavior, let alone retention and retirement.
With an increasing number of female representatives occupying House
seats over the course of the last two decades [Center for American
Women and Politics (CAWP) 2004], it becomes possible—and important—
to examine the role that gender plays in a legislator’s decision to leave
Congress. Not only does women’s presence in high-level elective office
decrease the possibility that gender-salient issues will be overlooked,
but it also brings a different voice to the legislative process.3
The degree to which a legislative body retains its female members
bears directly on issues of representation, in large part because power-

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