Expert Commentary

How perceptions of gender shape political knowledge and activism: The case of female U.S. Senators

2014 study from Arizona State University published in the Journal of Politics showing the strong gender effect of female senators on women voters and their engagement in politics.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (
Senator Barbara Mikulski (

As Congress headed to its summer break in August, its approval ratings languished close to an all-time low. The public’s sentiment about lawmakers might be influenced by the fact that the 113th Congress is on track to become one of the least productive on record. Or it may reflect growing levels of polarization among American voters. Either way, with only 19% of registered voters agreeing that most members of Congress deserve re-election, it could spell bad news for incumbents in November’s midterms.

Could greater representation of women in Congress be part of the solution to this political malaise? Some research has suggested that women can be more effective legislators than their male counterparts, with the average female congresswomen bringing more funding back to their districts and sponsoring and cosponsoring more bills than their male counterparts. The current cohort of female Senators from both parties — collectively numbering 20, the largest in history — has continued to draw attention for their perceived effectiveness and ability to “cross the aisle.” (The Congressional Research Service provides a detailed look at the period from 1917 to 2008.) And yet a persistent gender gap remains in U.S. politics.

While considerable research has been done into why fewer women chose to run for office, less attention has been paid to the impact that low levels of female representation have on the political engagement of women voters. Common sense may suggest a gender empowerment effect, but some scholarly findings have suggested a lack of one. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Politics, “How the Gender of U.S. Senators Influences People’s Understanding and Engagement in Politics,” analyzes results from the 2006 Congressional Cooperative Election Survey, with data from 36,500 respondents, to explore whether constituents know more about women senators compared to their male counterparts, and whether people’s level of information about their representatives influences their participation in politics.

Researchers Kim L. Fridkin and Patrick J. Kenney of Arizona State University test two competing hypotheses: (1) the novelty hypothesis, where the relative rarity of female senators makes them better known to male and female constituents; and (2) the saliency hypothesis, which suggests that only women in the electorate will have increased awareness of female senators, explained by social psychology theories that predict people process and recall “self-relevant’ information more powerfully. The study also examines whether or not the gender of a senator influences constituents’ political engagement and activity.

The study’s findings show:

  • Approximately one-third of respondents were are able to correctly identify their senator’s party identification and ideology, while 13% of the respondents were unable to recall the senator’s partisan affiliation and inaccurately placed their senator on the ideological scale.
  • Looking in more detail at voters’ understanding of their senator’s position on seven roll-call votes on issues ranging from withdrawal from Iraq to stem-cell research, respondents got their senator’s position correct for an average of 3 out of 7 votes. One in five respondents was not able to accurately recall any votes.
  • The senator’s gender did not significantly influence people’s ability to accurately identify their senator’s ideology or particular policy positions. However, people who are older, more educated and male were significantly more accurate when replying to questions about their senators, as were those with higher levels of political engagement and partisanship.
  • While women were less accurate than men when recalling their senator’s ideology and policy positions, they responded strongly to the gender of their representative. Women citizens did better recalling political information about women senators compared to men senators — so much so that when people were assessing women senators, men and women are almost equally adept at identifying the political profiles of their senators. The effect was less strong, but still significant, when applied to questions on policy positions.
  • As the number of women senators in a state increased so did women’s political participation, as measured by activities such as political donations, volunteering and voting turnout. This again speaks to the strong gender effect on women, who were more politically active when represented by women senators.
  • The effect that female senators had on women’s mobilization increased the more senior the senator was and when more press attention was given to the senator.

The authors conclude that the findings “suggest the confluence of more women senators and additional women voters may produce important changes in the policy outcomes of the U.S. Congress.” Adding to the substantial literature that shows women legislators act differently to their male counterparts, this study provides robust evidence that the “increasing numbers of women entering the U.S. Senate have altered the attitudes and actions of their constituents.” The changing profile of the U.S. Senate may influence women to engage more fully in civic life, and the “confluence of more women senators and additional women voters” may alter the legislative agenda with a stronger focus on issues that women prioritize such as education, health care and social issues.

Related research: A 2010 study published in Political Research Quarterly, by Beth Reingold and Jessica Harrell of Emory University, also analyzes survey data and finds that the “more opportunities women have to vote for female candidates, the more politically interested, talkative and knowledgeable they become.” Yet, especially for women, the party of the candidate matters — female voters are much more empowered in this way when there is “party congruence” between candidate and voter preference. However, a 2014 study published in American Politics Research, “Candidate Gender and the Political Engagement of Women and Men,” uses experiments to complement the primarily survey-based analysis that political scientists have engaged in to answer these questions. The study, which tries to isolate variables more precisely, finds “little evidence that the presence of female candidates activates women’s engagement in politics.” The analysis, by Jennifer Wolak of the University of Colorado, also concludes that “when the candidate from their own party is female, men are less likely to express an interest in participating in the election and more likely to say they are not sure who they would vote for in the election.”


Keywords: women and work, gender equality

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