Representing Women’s Interests and Intersections of Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in US State Legislatures

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In the U.S. context, political scientists have employed various definitions of women’s polit ical interests: some are more women - or gender - specific (or explicit) than others; some are more feminist, liberal, or radical than others. To what extent do our definitions of women’s interests affect who is or appears to be more or less willing to act fo r women? Does the relationship between women’s descriptive and substantive representation depend on how we define women’s interests? In this paper , we are particularly interested in whether and how definitions of women’s interests affect the conclusions we draw about women of color in U.S. state legislatures. Are legislative women, regardless of race and ethnicity, equally likely to take the lead on women’s issues, regardless of how they are defined? Or are gender gaps in women’s substantive representation racially/ethnically specific? Intersectionality theory and research cautions against generalizing about women’s representation across race and ethnicity and suggests that any single - axis conception of women’s interests risks excluding or obscuring the repr esentational advocacy provided by women of color, while privileging that provid ed by white women. To test this proposition , we examine the agenda - setting behavior (i.e., bill introductions) of state legislators in twelve states, in 1997 , across a variety o f definitions of women’s issues/interests . We find no systematic or consistent biases against legislative women of color but nevertheless conclude that the best approach may be to employ a variety of theoretically relevant concepts and measures of women’s substantive representation. 1 Decades of research on the impact of women in elective office have demonstrated quite forcefully that representation in the U.S. is gendered. Throughout the policymaking process — and beyond — female officeholders are often more li kely than their male colleagues to act for women or women’s interests. 1 In terms of the relationship between descriptive and substantive representation, public officials who “stand for” women are more likely to “act for” women (Pitkin 1967). Nowhere is th is link between gender identity and representation more clearly and consistently demonstrated than in the research on legislators’ policy leadership. Across time, office, and political parties, legislative women, compared to their male counterparts , care more about, know more about, and do more about “women’s i ssues ” (and the more general interests from which they are derived). 2 In interviews, surveys, press releases, and newsletters, women officeholders are more likely to express concern about such issues and claim them as their own (Barrett 1995; Boles 2001; Diamond 1977; Dolan and Kropf 2004; Fridkin and Woodall 2005; Garcia Bedolla, Tate, and Wong 2005 ; Reingold 2000 ). They are more likely to serve on committees relevant to women’s interests ( Carroll 20 08; Diamond 1977; Reingold 2000 ; Thomas 1994 ; Thomas and Welch 1991 ). And p erhaps most importantly, t hey are more likely to introduce or sponsor legislation addressing such interests ( Bratton 2002, 2005; Bratton and Haynie 1999; Bratton, Haynie, and Reingo ld 2006; Carroll 2001; Dodson and Carroll 1991; 1 For a review of this literatur e, see Reingold (2008). 2 We use the terms “women’s issues” and “women’s interests” to distinguish the more general and abstract “interests” or concerns of women from the more specific, empirically manifested “issues” that address or articulate them (Beckw ith 2012). When the distinction is blurred or both terms seem applicable, we often use terms like “interests/issues.”

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