Gender Polarization Fuels Abortion Policymaking in the States
By Abigail A. Matthews, Rebecca J. Kreitzer & Emily U. Schilling | October 13, 2020
Abigail A. Matthews is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Rebecca J. Kreitzer is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Emily U. Schilling is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Women lawmakers see themselves as the harbingers of collaboration and compromise. Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, said, “I’ll work together with anyone—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—to get results for Iowans.” Greenfield is not alone in signaling her desire to work with others. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) agrees, “I think that women are more collaborative, and we seek the solution.” In 2012, U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) proclaimed that women get things done, saying, “What I find is with all due deference to our male colleagues, that women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.”
Yet in recent years, society and politics have become more hyper-polarized at both the national level and in state politics. In 2017, a Pew Research Poll found that more than half of Republicans and Democrats viewed the other party “very unfavorably.” It’s more than dislike or policy disagreement that drives partisanship; it’s about identity.
The political polarization that exists in all aspects of our political lives affects women legislators, too. This polarization produces Republican women who are more conservative than their predecessors.
The political polarization that exists in all aspects of our political lives affects women legislators, too. This polarization produces Republican women who are more conservative than their predecessors. Moderates tend not to run for election in part because of declining “fit” between their personal political beliefs and the platform of the Republican party itself. Primary voters are more conservative than the average Republican general election voter. And hanging over all of this, voters often (incorrectly) assume women are less conservative than they really are. That means the Republican women legislators who make it through these barriers are often more conservative to counteract that stereotype. As a result, in some states, Republican women legislators are more conservative than their male counterparts.
How Polarization Impacts “Women’s Issues”
There is a lot of evidence that Democrat and Republican women legislators are more likely to represent women’s interests on issues such as child care, education, violence against women, and women’s health. But do growing divisions affect women state legislators’ working relationships? How does polarization shape women legislators’ advocacy of women’s issues?
Do growing divisions affect women state legislators’ working relationships? How does polarization shape women legislators’ advocacy of women’s issues?
To answer these questions, we examined the quintessential women’s issue—abortion—in all 99 state legislative chambers from 1993 to 2016. Abortion has become a litmus test for legislators from both political parties. We expected that as polarization increased, state legislators would be more likely to introduce abortion-related bills. Voters often reward legislators for taking a position and passing legislation, and legislators use bill introductions in lots of ways, such as to energize their supporters and boost their reelection campaigns. We expected that Republicans would introduce more anti-abortion rights policies, and Democrats would introduce pro-abortion rights policies.
Looking first at polarization in the chamber, we find that as overall polarization grows, state legislators are less likely to introduce anti-abortion bills. But that effect doesn’t hold when we consider divisions based on gender. As polarization between Republican and Democratic women grows, state legislators are actually more likely to introduce restrictive abortion rights legislation. This is because women lawmakers of both parties are more likely to introduce abortion-related bills as the partisan divide between them grows.
Women lawmakers of both parties are more likely to introduce abortion-related bills as the partisan divide between them grows.
We do find that these effects are mitigated for Democratic women when in they are in a Republican-controlled chamber, as well as when the number of Democratic women serving with them increases. (Gender polarization does not have any effect on Republican men’s propensity to introduce restrictive abortion policy, but it does have a positive effect on Democratic men and their bill introductions.)
Parties and Political Motives
Why do women legislators become more active in regulating abortion when gender polarization grows? While we don’t have the data to answer this question definitively, we believe there are multiple dynamics at play. For Democratic women, introducing legislation to expand access to abortion has been a core tenet of their beliefs and political strategy. For Republican women, it used to be the case that they stayed silent on abortion. Many Republican women were more moderate legislators who took a pro-abortion rights stance. Taking a leadership role on abortion would have drawn attention to an issue that put them at odds with their political party. In recent years, the new generation of elected Republican women are more conservative than previous Republican women legislators. These more conservative Republican women do not face the same impediments to leadership on abortion.
Further, because of gendered stereotypes that presume Republican women are more moderate than their male counterparts, Republican women must take extra steps to distinguish their record as conservative. Candidates often use abortion symbolically to represent a broader political agenda, making it a natural fit for Republican women seeking to show how conservative they are. As women in state legislative chambers become more politically polarized, it makes good political sense for them to introduce more abortion policy.
Candidates often use abortion symbolically to represent a broader political agenda, making it a natural fit for Republican women seeking to show how conservative they are.
With the future of Roe vs. Wade in question at the Supreme Court, state-level abortion policy is increasingly important. But our study of abortion policymaking in the states has implications that extend beyond the abortion debate. These findings add to growing evidence that the effect of polarization is not straightforward, and in fact, varies across policies. Second, we show the importance of evaluating gender polarization, especially for gendered policy. As women legislators’ partisanship grows, we should expect the issues women collaborate on to change, and even whether they will work together at all.