The Utility of Women’s Caucuses in Today’s Political Climate

This week in North Philly NotesAnna Mitchell Mahoney, author of Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures, writes about the importance of women and bipartisan caucuses.

The toxic masculinity displayed perpetually by politicians and tracked by scholars (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/) in our current political climate reminds us of the importance of formal and intentional women’s spaces. Women’s organizations inside and outside of institutions serve many purposes including strategic planning and action for policy change as well as support for women who do disproportionate amounts of household, professional, and emotional labor. My book, Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, examines under what conditions women state legislators carve out a space for themselves within legislatures where men make up three-quarters of members.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures_smThe more things change, the more they stay the same.

My research found that many of the reasons women formed caucuses in the 1970s and 1980s are very similar to the motivations of today’s women caucus entrepreneurs. The bias and exclusion women felt when they were increasing their numbers in state legislatures continued to be reported by the women legislators I interviewed between 2009-2013 when their numbers plateaued around 24%. Apart from experiences of discrimination, women also reported wanting relationships with other women who shared their experiences as a woman in politics to learn from them and feel supported. This year has seen an increase in the number of women filing to run for state legislative seats (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/). If more women enter legislatures, will they seek out women’s only spaces?

What is in it for them?

In 2016, 22 states have such organizations whose missions vary from agenda setting policy caucuses, to those who take up policies on an ad hoc basis, to those whose primary mission is social – supporting each other as women, no policy consensus necessary. These caucuses allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain policy areas and advocates for certain constituencies. Caucuses help members build relationships and gain information useful for accomplishing their goals. These groups also provide opportunities for leadership. Other studies have shown, depending on the proportion of women in the majority party, the presence of a women’s caucus may be correlated with higher proportions of women in leadership positions, increasing their status within the institution, getting them closer to the reins of power themselves (Kanthak and Krause 2012). Savvy entrepreneurs who want to strengthen women’s caucuses use many of these arguments when trying to motivate other women to join while simultaneously refuting counterclaims that women no longer need these spaces or that bipartisan caucuses themselves are inappropriate.

What is in it for all of us?

In light of today’s hyper-partisanship, one may ask what use a bipartisan caucus is, especially if it is only social in nature. Does it really matter? If the other side is populated by traitors and extremists, why even attempt relationships? In subsequent research, my colleague Mirya Holman and I found that states with women’s caucuses (even those that were only social) had an increased co-sponsorship rate among women indicating that policy outcomes are possible – even when policy is taken explicitly off the table for the caucus. Further, during the Kavanaugh hearings, much was made of the bipartisan relationship between Senator Coons and Senator Flake.  Bipartisan, personal relationships never go out of style in legislatures – even if they are strained during hyper partisan times (Victor and Ringe 2009).

Bipartisan caucuses are one place such relationships are formed in legislatures that prioritize partisan loyalty and gender norm expectations. In addition to the benefits for participants, women’s caucuses make three significant interventions to legislative institutions. First, by creating a legislative organization that signifies gender as politically salient, women legislators are challenging the false gender neutrality of politics. In my book, I make visible male dominance within these institutions that many consider androgynous. Observers may note this advantage in the social norms of legislatures where men call out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs, where men exclude women from social gatherings where they actually make the deals, and through more formal processes where party leaders concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude them from leadership positions.

Second, the establishment of women’s caucuses inside male-dominated legislative institutions can provide a safe space for marginalized legislators to support each other, as well as help develop and refine legislative initiatives. Caucuses are a way to counteract institutional norms that may require women to play a man’s game, adopt a particular political persona, or adhere to someone else’s definition of appropriate political priorities. When gender norms are challenged or broadened in a public space like legislatures, the possibilities for all women grow.

Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.  These potential interventions are significant and indicate the importance of these organizations beyond the adoption (or not) of women-friendly policy.

Scholars must continue to probe the value or necessity of these bipartisan organizations. One day they may no longer be necessary as women are wholly incorporated into the institutions in which they serve. However, it may be that women will always seek comradery and support from those with similar lived experiences, regardless of how far their workplaces come in accommodating their presence. For now, the symbolic importance of women’s spaces within male-dominated institutions continues to signal that women belong in office and women can work together (even if in limited ways). More tangibly, the handful of women’s caucuses that participate in recruiting and training women for campaigns hold out hope that they may have a few new members come next session.

References

Kanthak, Kristin, and George A. Krause. 2012. The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Victor, Jennifer Nicholl and Nils Ringe. 2009. “The Social Utility of Informal Institutions: Caucuses as Networks in the 110th U.S. House of Representatives.” American Politics Research. 37(5): 742-766.

 

 

 

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: