Do Women Lawmakers Need White Men to Cosponsor Their Bills?
By Hannah McVeigh | November 10, 2020
Hannah McVeigh is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota.
Women have more than quadrupled their presence in state legislative office since 1971. And the 2020 election cycle, like in 2018, saw record numbers of women running for political office in the United States.
But does having more women in state legislatures automatically translate to different policy outcomes?
Gender Differences in Policy Priorities and Approaches
Across the country, and around the world, women—including Asian and Pacific Islander women, Black women, Latina women, Native American and Indigenous women, Middle Eastern and North African women, and white women—expand the terms of debate by bringing different policy priorities to the political agenda. Investigating women’s legislative behavior, scholars find that women legislators are more likely to use committee time, floor speeches, and bill sponsorship to increase attention to issues affecting women. Yet whether that translates into legislative success is contingent on a number of factors, including but not limited to institutional bias, gender stereotypes, and marginalization, such as being assigned to less powerful committees.
A new and growing body of research suggests women seek to collaborate and build coalitions with colleagues to increase support for their initiatives and combat these institutional barriers. Indeed, using cosponsorship—the act of publicly and officially signing on in support of a piece of legislation—as a proxy for legislative collaboration, these studies find that women cosponsor more than men, and, specifically, that women are more likely to cosponsor other women’s legislation. Yet whether women’s collaborative behavior increases women’s legislative success is not clear.
Does White Male Cosponsorship Matter?
Women legislators bring perspectives to politics that have often been relegated to the periphery of public debate. But because state legislatures are majority rule institutions, legislators must be able to garner the support of their colleagues. And today, even if every woman legislator were to sign on in support of another woman’s legislation, their sheer numbers are not enough to get a bill over the finish line in most state legislatures.
Today, even if every woman legislator were to sign on in support of another woman’s legislation, their sheer numbers are not enough to get a bill over the finish line in most state legislatures
If we want to understand the factors that enhance or limit women lawmakers’ legislative success, we need to understand the role of cosponsorship in the legislative process. Legislative friendships are essential to attaining influence. And John Kingdon has noted, legislators don’t have time to read every bill that comes to their desk and will often look to who supports the legislation to know whether or not they will support it. White men are the dominant group in most state legislatures, yet little work has examined the influence of their support—or lack thereof—on women legislators’ legislation.
Case Study: Michigan State Legislature
Using data collected from the Center for American Women and Politics, the Reflective Democracy Campaign, publicly available state legislative data, and digitized state archives, I have created a unique data set of state legislators and the education bills that they (co)sponsor, focusing on the Michigan state legislature over seven legislative sessions (2003- 2016).
The Michigan state legislature provides a good case study as it has a relatively gender and racially diverse representative body and term limits. Majority control of the state house and senate seesawed between Republicans and Democrats during this time period. In addition, 67 percent of education bills introduced during this time period had one or more cosponsors.
Do white male cosponsors increase the survival of bills introduced by white women and women of color in the legislative process? Michigan’s bill data show that there are distinct advantages to having white male cosponsors.
Do white male cosponsors increase the survival of bills introduced by white women and women of color in the legislative process? Examining broad patterns of legislative success, Michigan’s bill data show that there are distinct advantages to having white male cosponsors. Compared to their colleagues, women of color legislators were the least likely to pass their legislation, even when they held positions conventionally associated with success, such as being a member of committee with jurisdiction of the bill topic they introduced or a majority party member.
Once white men’s proportion of the total number of cosponsors on a bill is included in the analysis, however, women of color’s legislation is no longer significantly less likely to secure passage compared to their colleagues (though the correlation remains negative). Men of color, on the other hand, see their odds of passing legislation increase once the proportion of white men cosponsors on each bill is accounted for. White women appear to be unaffected by the proportion of white men cosponsors. Though preliminary, these findings suggest that support from colleagues, specifically white men, increases women and men of color’s odds of legislative success—though men of color garner a stronger and more positive effect from white men’s support.
These findings provide some evidence as to why an intersectional analysis is important. Assuming that all women will experience legislative politics in the same way may miss how specific features of the political process are raced and gendered, impacting women of color’s legislative success uniquely.
Assuming that all women will experience legislative politics in the same way may miss how specific features of the political process are raced and gendered, impacting women of color’s legislative success uniquely.
Finally, if state legislatures are pipelines to higher office—experience in lower office helps to springboard a legislator to higher office—then a legislator who can’t seem to get their bills passed might have a harder time claiming experience, potentially limiting their future political careers.
Overcoming Bias in the Legislative Process
It is possible that as women’s representation increases in state legislatures, the influence of white men cosponsors will decline. But women’s politics are not monolithic, and assuming that just increasing their presence will result in better outcomes for women, in particular when it comes to success on women’s interest legislation, has produced mixed results.
Understanding how women legislators negotiate their outsider status in white male-dominated institutions is important to help them overcome bias in the legislative process and increase their chances for policy success. And we cannot understand women legislators’ success without accounting for the role of legislative collaboration. Focusing on the individual lawmaker without accounting for relationships among legislators privileges men’s historical dominance in our legislative institutions.