Gender Stereotypes and the Policy Priorities of Women in Congress

  • Mary Layton Atkinson
  • Jason Harold WindettEmail author
Original Paper


Scholars find that women who run for Congress are just as likely to win as men are, yet women face considerable challenges related to their sex on the campaign trail. Women are more likely to face challengers than men are, the challengers they face are typically more qualified, and gender stereotypes paint women as less able to handle important issues like defense and foreign affairs. We examine how women succeed in the face of these obstacle, arguing that women are successful, in part, because they craft large, diverse legislative agendas that include bills on a mix of topics. These topics include district interests, women’s interests, and the masculine issues on which women are disadvantaged. We believe this balancing strategy allows women to develop reputations for competence on a wide range of issues, which in turn, helps them deter electoral challengers. We test our hypotheses by analyzing a comprehensive database of all bills introduced in the U.S. House between 1963 and 2009. We find that female MCs propose more bills, spread across more issues, than do men. Further, the topics of the bills women sponsor span a range of women’s issues, masculine issues, and gender-neutral topics—giving support to the idea that women balance their legislative portfolios. Finally, we examine the electoral benefits to women of this strategy by analyzing rates of challenger emergence in Congressional races. We find that women must introduce twice as much legislation as men to see the probability of challenger emergence decrease to a level that is indistinguishable from that of men. The added effort and staff hours female MCs typically devote to crafting legislation, vis-à-vis male MCs, only serves to put them on equal footing with men. It does not give them an advantage.


Women’s representation Legislative agendas Descriptive representation 



The authors would like to thank Kevin Banda, Frank Baumgartner, Nate Birkhead, Colleen Carpinella, Tom Carsey, Erin Cassese, Melody Crowder-Meyer, Kathy Dolan, Tessa Ditonto, Jill Greenlee, Jeff Harden, Morgan Hazelton, Rocket Holman, Leonnie Huddy, Justin Kirkland, Amber Knight, Chryl Laird, Carrie Langer, Heather Ondercin, Steve Rogers, Kira Sanbonmatsu, the Gender and Political Psychology Writing Group, seminar participants at the 2014 New Research in Gender and Political Psychology Conference, Iowa State University Department of Political Science, Iowa State University Carrie Chapman Catt Center, Saint Louis University Department of Political Science, Saint Louis University Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Washington University Department of Political Science, the three anonymous reviewers and editor at Political Behavior for helpful feedback and assistance in previous drafts of this paper.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9471_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (781 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 781 kb)


  1. Anzia, S., & Berry, C. R. (2011). The jackie (and jill) robinson effect: Why do congresswomen outperform congressmen? American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), 478–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Atkinson, M. L. (Forthcoming). Gender and policy agendas in the post-war house. Policy Studies Journal.
  3. Boatright, R., Moscardelli, V. G., & Vickrey, C. (2017). Congressional primary elections data.
  4. Boydstun, A. E., Bevan, S., & Thomas, H, I. I. I. (2014). The importance of attention diversity and how to measure it. Policy Studies Journal, 42, 173–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burrell, B. C. (1994). A woman’s place is in the House: Campaigning for Congress in the feminist era. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  6. Carroll, S. (1994). Women as candidates in American politics. Indiana University Press.
  7. Carroll, S. J. (2002). Representing women: Congresswomens perceptions of their representational roles. In C. Rosenthal (Ed.), Women transforming Congress. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.Google Scholar
  8. Clark, C., & Clark, J. (1986). The old vs. the new gender gap: A case study of deploying the mx in wyoming. Presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Sacramento.Google Scholar
  9. Dodson, D. L. (2006). The impact of women in congress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dolan, J., & Kropf, J. S. (2004). Credit claiming from the U.S. house. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 9(1), 41–59.
  11. Druckman, L. R. J., James, N., & Ostermeir, E. (2004). Candidate strategies to prime issues and image. American Journal of Political Science, 66, 1180–1202.Google Scholar
  12. Fox, R. (1997). Gender dynamics in congressional elections. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fox, R. (2006). Congressional elections: Where are we on the road to gender parity? In S. Carroll & R. Fox (Eds.), Gender and elections: Shaping the future of American politics (pp. 97–116). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Garand, J. C., & Burke, K. M. (2006). Legislative activity and the 1994 republican takeover: Exploring changing patterns of sponsorship and cosponsorship in the U.S. house. American Politicts Research, 34, 159–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gerrity, J. C., Osborn, T., & Mendez, J. M. (2007). Women and representation: A different view of the district? Politics & Gender, 2, 179–200.Google Scholar
  16. Gray, V., & Lowery, D. (2000). The population ecology of interest representation: Lobbying communities in the American states. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hernson, P. S., Lay, J. C., & Stokes, A. (2003). Women running as women: Candidates’ gender, campaign issues, and voter targeting strategies. Journal of Politics, 65, 244–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Huddy, L., & Terkildsen, N. (1993). The consequences of gender stereotypes at different levels and types of office. Political Research Quarterly, 46, 503–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kahn, K. F. (1996). The political consequences of being a woman. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Kathlene, L. (1995). Alternative views on crime: Legislative policymaking in gendered terms. Journal of Politics, 57, 696–723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. King, A. (1997). Running scared: Why America’s politicians campaign too much and govern too little. New York, NY: Martin Kessler Books.Google Scholar
  22. Kuklinski, J., & West, D. (2005). Issues and institutions: ’Winnowing’ in the U.S. congress. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 313–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Laakso, M., & Taagepera, R. (1979). Effective number of parties: A measure with application to west europe. Comparative Political Studies, 12, 3–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. MacDonald, J. A., & OBrien, E. (2011). Quasi-experimental design, and advancing womens interests: Reexamining the influence of gender on substantive representation. Political Research Quarterly, 64, 472–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Mansbridge, J. (1999). Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? a contingent “yes”. Journal of Politics, 61, 628–657.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Mayhew, D. R. (1974). Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Milyo, J., & Schosberg, S. (2000). Gender bias and selection bias in house elections. Public Choice, 105(1), 41–59. Scholar
  28. Office of the Historian. (2017). Shared Experiences of Women in Congress.
  29. Osborn, T., & Mendez, J. M. (2010). Speaking as wome: Women and floor speeches in the senate. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 31, 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Palmer, B., & Simon, D. (2005). When women run against women: The hidden influence of female incumbents in elections to the U.S. house of representatives, 1956–2002. Politics and Gender, 1, 39–63.Google Scholar
  31. Palmer, B., & Simon, D. (2006). Breaking the political glass ceiling: Women and congressional elections. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Pearson, K., & McGhee, E. (2013). What it takes to win: Questioning gender neutral outcomes in U.S. house elections. Politics and Gender, 9(4), 439462. Scholar
  33. Pitkin, H. F. (1967). The concept of representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Schiller, W. J. (1995). Senators as political entrepreneurs: Using bill sponsorship to shape legislative agendas. American Journal of Political Science, 39(1), 186–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sellers, P. (1998). Strategy and background in congressional campaigns. American Political Science Review, 92, 159–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Stigler, G. J. (1972). Economic competition and political competition. Public Choice, 13, 91–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sulkin, T. (2009). Campaign appeals and legislative action. Journal of Politics, 71, 1093–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Swers, M. (1998). Are women more likely to vote for womens issue bills than their male colleagues? Legislative Studies Quarterly, 23, 435–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Swers, M. (2001). Understanding the policy impact of electing women: Evidence from research on congress and state legislatures. PS. Political Science and Politics, 36, 217–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Swers, M. (2002). The difference women make: The policy impact of women in Congress. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  41. Swers, M. (2007). Building a reputation on national security: The impact of stereotypes releated to gender and military experience. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 32, 550–595.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Volden, C., Wiseman, A.E., Wittmer, D.E. (2016). Womens issues and their fates in the us congress. Political Science Research and Methods.
  43. Windett, J. H. (2014). Gendered campaign strategies in U.S. elections. American Politics Research, 42(4), 628–655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of North Carolina at CharlotteCharlotteUSA

Personalised recommendations