Record Numbers of Women in State Legislatures: Caucuses will Help Them Get Work Done
By Anna Mitchell Mahoney | November 15, 2018
Midterm votes are still being tallied, and women are predicted to increase their overall share of state legislature seats from 25.4% to as much as 38% across the country. Next year, at least 2,019 women will serve in state legislative offices exceeding the previous record of 1,879 women serving simultaneously set in 2018. This incorporation is vital for the important policies being debated and adopted in these legislatures, and for changing the workplace culture of legislatures. Women’s caucuses at the state level are one effective vehicle for ensuring that gender equity issues are included in state political agendas and that institutional norms expand to embrace women as equal partners in policymaking.
Caucuses and Legislative Collective Action
Caucuses provide a space for legislators to create policy priorities apart from those determined by committees and parties. The relationships and skills created by caucus participation assist members in pursuing public policies and equip them with political skills and capital that can be applied broadly. Caucuses also allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain legislative areas and advocates for certain constituencies. They provide opportunities for leadership. And, as state legislatures mirror the national trend of heightened polarization, caucuses play a key role in creating cross-party collaboration.
Women’s Caucuses Matter
Women’s caucuses play a particularly key role in legislative life. 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, thereby raising women’s status within the institution. Identity caucuses have a specific symbolic power, as well, in that they signal governmental legitimacy to their constituents and help amplify marginalized voices.
Broadly, women’s caucuses perform three important functions.
First, as organizations that signify gender as politically salient, women legislators’ caucuses reveal the false gender neutrality of politics and make male dominance within political institutions visible.
Scholars note the formal mechanisms by which such dominance manifests, such as party leaders’ choices to concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude women from leadership positions. My book also documents the informal ways that male advantage is accrued through legislatures’ social norms, such as men calling out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs or excluding women from social gatherings in which political deals are made.
Second, women’s caucuses can provide a safe space in which marginalized legislators are able to support each other as they help develop and refine legislative initiatives.
Women’s caucuses have brought enormous intellectual acumen to bear on women’s health initiatives like funding for breast and cervical cancer screening, domestic violence, and reproductive rights, as well as services for military families and women in prison—these issues might be overlooked or underexplored outside women-led spaces.
Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.
That representation can include the development of policy agendas, but also a range of efforts like the distribution of scholarships, hosting campaign trainings, and organizing headline events to commemorate women’s contributions to their states’ political histories. By tailoring their organizations within legislative institutions, women help meet their state’s specific needs in dynamic conversation with the gender and partisan norms of their political environment.
As of 2016, there were 22 women’s caucuses, in every region of the U.S., in Republican and Democratically controlled legislatures, and in states with low, moderate, and high proportions of women legislators. Some are informal working groups, while others include by-laws, officers, and dues. Across the map, even in conservative Southern states, women’s caucuses are shaping policy agendas and legislative life.
What the Midterms Mean for Women’s Caucuses
The surge in women representatives elected in the midterms means it is possible that we will see the formation of many more women’s caucuses, as I found in my analysis of New Jersey, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Colorado between 2006-2010. Caucus entrepreneurs in Colorado and Pennsylvania were newly elected women dissatisfied with the state of affairs they found when they entered the state house, while New Jersey’s caucus was started by more senior women who recognized a political opportunity as women filled seats vacated by indicted incumbents.
Most women’s caucuses are launched under Democratic control; because Democrats have reclaimed some chambers, women legislators may seize upon the positive condition. My research with Christopher J. Clark demonstrates that when women’s numbers in Democratically-controlled legislatures increase, legislators are slightly more likely to form caucuses. One interesting case is Minnesota’s House, which flipped to the Democrats and will likely see a woman Speaker. Even before the election, Minnesota’s female DFL’ers were holding meetings, so while, counting both parties, women house members actually lost a seat, the potential for collective action is possible.
Even without a surge in women or Democratic control, savvy entrepreneurs may still read on-the-ground political conditions as favorable for caucus formation.
Women’s caucuses are found even in unlikely places with high party polarization (Colorado), low numbers of women in office (Wyoming), and strongly Republican states (Georgia). Some environments may be more favorable than others, but evidence suggests that when strategic women legislators utilize the right frames and marshal the right resources, they can unite women across party lines. To encourage women of all parties to join, caucus entrepreneurs need to frame the proposed group as a solution to shared problems, whether a sense of isolation from leadership, work-life challenges, or the need to build a collective voice on specific policy issues. Caucus founders are more likely to be successful when they read the political context and establish responsive caucus cultures.
From mobilizing within a larger session agenda to prioritizing bipartisan relationship-building, caucus activities are most effective when they engage all members and staffers, organizing to keep initiatives on track across sessions.
To be sure, women whose state legislatures have no gender-based caucuses are not without powerful organizing ties and tools. In many states, women legislators have established strong social networks that help them work together. Caucuses, however, provide recognizable structure and purpose in powerful ways. Tactically minded women legislators will approach the next session in ways that teach us about strategy, about women in positions of power, and about how state legislatures, as institutions, respond to an influx of new, diverse political actors. Keen observers must be forgiven our excitement: we’re watching to see how our women representatives organize together to accomplish policy and combat gridlock.