The case for more women in public office

Much of our nation’s political talent pool remains on the sidelines. Women only represent one in five members of Congress or state legislative seats, and they continue to be vastly underrepresented as statewide executives. Proponents of electing more women to office argue that women bring with them different priorities, life experiences and perspectives and will enhance democratic governance. Yet, others believe choosing candidates solely on the basis of gender is an example of identity politics run amok.

Increasing the number of women in public office, however, doesn’t present a false choice between upholding democratic ideals of representation or voting on a candidate’s party or merit. The best case for electing more women to public office is one made on the basis of job performance in governance and public preference.

Political scientists find that women in office outperform their male counterparts in certain ways. For example, women in Congress sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than do men, and they deliver 9 percent more spending — roughly $49 million — per year in federal programs to their home districts than do congressmen. Women legislators are more likely than their male counterparts to champion policy concerns that are directly relevant to women, such as health care, family issues and education. Female governors are also more likely to use their “State of the State” address to prioritize social welfare concerns than male governors; public opinion data show that women in the electorate are more likely to give precedence to these concerns than men.

Additionally, having more women in political office enhances democratic participation among a wider variety of citizens. For instance, citizen participation is more diverse in public meetings in cities that have female mayors. Other evidence suggests that women in politics engender more trust among the American public: The Pew Center found that Americans were more likely to indicate that in politics, women were better than men at working out compromises, being honest and ethical, and working to improve U.S quality of life.

Women in office are more likely to value and prioritize compromise in their leadership styles than men. Results from the April Goucher Poll found that political compromise is exactly what the majority of Marylanders want from their elected officials. So, it’s not surprising that nearly half of Marylanders think that the state would be governed better if more women served in elected office.

Maryland’s current congressional delegation, though, is without a single woman — a delegation that previously included uninterrupted, and often bipartisan, women’s representation since Republican Marjorie Holt was elected to the House in 1972. With women holding nearly a third of the seats, the Maryland General Assembly is the tenth most gender diverse state legislative body in the country. Yet, both the House speaker and the Senate president — the powerful presiding officers —are and always have been men. Maryland also has never elected a female governor.

Yet, this election cycle, there appears to be a surge in the number of women running for office, both nationally and in our state. For instance, the Center for American Women in Politics reports that the number of women running for Congress has doubled compared with 2016. Organizations that have long sponsored candidate training for women report an explosion of interest; EMILY’s List has received more than 25,000 inquiries this past year from women who want to run for office. The non-partisan group She Should Run reports that the rate of women joining their network has risen tenfold since the 2016 election.

Our own analysis of data from the Maryland State Board of Elections filings shows that approximately one-third of state legislative candidates are women; by contrast, about a quarter of primary candidates were women in 2014, the last time state legislative races were held.

Thus, as Marylanders from both sides of the political aisle consider their choices for the various state and federal offices this election year, we encourage voters to stop viewing women’s representation through a singular lens of identity politics or democratic ideals — and to start thinking about it as a mechanism of good governance.

Melissa Deckman (mdeckman2@washcoll.edu) is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College. Mileah Kromer (Mileah.Kromer@goucher.edu) is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. They are co-founders — along with Christine Wade, a political science professor at Washington College — of Training Ms. President, a bi-partisan program to inspire college women in Maryland to run for office.

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