Skip to main content

Women’s Issues and Their Fates in the US Congress*


Significant scholarship indicates that female legislators focus their attention on “women’s issues” to a greater extent than do male lawmakers. Drawing on over 40 years of bill sponsorship data from the US House of Representatives, we define women’s issues in terms of those sponsored at a greater rate by women in Congress. Our analysis reveals that most (but not all) of the classically considered women’s issues are indeed raised at an enhanced rate by congresswomen. We then track the fate of those issues. While 4 percent of all bills become law, that rate drops to 2 percent for women’s issues and to only 1 percent for women’s issue bills sponsored by women themselves. This pattern persists over time—from the early 1970s through today—and upon controlling for other factors that influence bills success rates. We link the bias against women’s issues to the committee process, and suggest several avenues for further research.

Hide All

Craig Volden, Professor of Public Policy and Politics, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, L040 Garrett Hall, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400893, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4893 ( Alan E. Wiseman, Professor of Political Science and Law (by courtesy), Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, PMB 0505, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203-5721 ( Dana E. Wittmer, Assistant Professor of Political Science Department of Political Science, Colorado College, 14 E Cache La Poudre, Colorado Springs, CO 80909 ( The authors thank Claire Abernathy, Chris Berry, Chris Den Hartog, Juanita Firestone, Matt Hitt, Chris Kypriotis, Frances Lee, Lauren Mattioli, William Minozzi, Beth Reingold, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Lynn Sanders, Michele Swers, Andrew Taylor, Sean Theriault, Danielle Thomsen, Sophie Trawalter, Denise Walsh, three anonymous referees, and the editor of Political Science Research and Methods, in addition to seminar participants at the University of Virginia and the Midwest Political Science Association Conference for helpful comments on earlier drafts, and James Austrow, Tracy Burdett, Chris Kypriotis, Brian Pokosh, Mike Xu, and Nick Zeppos for valuable research assistance. This project also benefited from the use of Scott Adler and John Wilkerson’s Congressional Bills Project data and Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones’s Policy Agendas Project data. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

Hide All
Anzia Sarah, and Berry Christopher R.. 2011. ‘The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?American Journal of Political Science 55(3):478493.
Baldez Lisa. 2011. ‘The UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): A New Way to Measure Women’s Interests’. Politics & Gender 7:419423.
Baumgartner Frank R., and Jones Bryan D.. (eds). 2002. Policy Dynamics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Beckwith Karen. 2011. ‘Interests, Issues, and Preferences: Women’s Interests and Epiphenomena of Activism’. Politics and Gender 7(3):424429.
Box-Steffensmeier Janet M., and Grant J. Tobin. 1999. ‘All in a Day’s Work: The Financial Rewards of Legislative Effectiveness’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 24(4):511523.
Bratton Kathleen. 2002. ‘The Effect of Legislative Diversity on Agenda Setting: Evidence from Six State Legislatures’. American Politics Research 30:115142.
Bratton Kathleen. 2005. ‘Critical Mass Theory Revisited: The Behavior and Success of Token Women in State Legislatures’. Politics and Gender 1:97125.
Bratton Kathleen A., and Haynie Kerry L.. 1999. ‘Agenda Setting and Legislative Success in State Legislatures: The Effects of Gender and Race’. Journal of Politics 61:658679.
Burrell Barbara C. 1994. A Woman’s Place is in the House: Campaigning for Congress in the Feminist Era. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Cowell-Meyers Kimberly, and Langbein Laura. 2009. ‘Linking Women’s Descriptive and Substantive Representation in the United States’. Politics & Gender 5:491518.
Dolan Julie. 1998. ‘Support for Women’s Interests in the 103rd Congress’. Women & Politics 18(4):8194.
Duerst-Lahti Georgia. 2002. ‘Knowing Congress as a Gendered Institution: Manliness and the Implications of Women in Congress’. In Cindy Rosenthal (ed.), Women Transforming Congress, 2249. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Ford Lynne E., and Dolan Kathleen. 1995. ‘The Politics of Women State Legislators: A South/Non-South Comparison’. Southeastern Political Review 23(2):333348.
Frederick Brian. 2009. ‘Are Female House Members Till More Liberal in a Polarized Era? The Conditional Nature of the Relationship Between Descriptive and Substantive Representation’. Congress and the Presidency: A Journal of Capital Studies 36(2):19441953.
Frederick Brian. 2011. ‘Gender Turnover and Roll Call Voting in the U.S. Senate’. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 32(3):193210.
Friedman Sally. 1996. ‘House Committee Assignments of Women and Minority Newcomers, 1965–1994’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 21(1):7381.
Gerrity Jessica C., Osborn Tracy, and Mendez Jeanette Morehouse. 2007. ‘Women and Representation: A Different View of the District’. Politics and Gender 3:179200.
Gilligan Thomas W., and Krehbiel Keith. 1987. ‘Collective Decision Making and Standing Committees: An Informational Rationale for Restrictive Amendment Procedures’. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 3(2):287335.
Githens Marianne, and Prestage Jewell. 1977. ‘A Minority Within a Minority’. In Marianne Githens and Jewell Prestage (eds), A Portrait of Marginality: The Political Behavior of the American Woman, 339345. New York: David McKay.
Hall Richard. 1996. Participation in Congress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hawkesworth Mary. 2003. ‘Congressional Enactments of Race-Gender: Towards a Theory of Race-Gendered Institutions’. American Political Science Review 97(4):529550.
Huddy Leonie, and Terkildsen Nayda. 1993a. ‘The Consequences of Gender Stereotypes for Women Candidates at Different Levels and Types of Office’. Political Research Quarterly 46(3):503525.
Huddy Leonie, and Terkildsen Nayda. 1993b. ‘Gender Stereotypes and the Perception of Male and Female Candidates’. American Journal of Political Science 37(1):119147.
Jewell Malcolm, and Whicker Marcia Lynn. 1993. ‘The Feminization of Leadership in State Legislatures’. PS: Political Science and Politics 26:705712.
Jeydel Alana, and Taylor Andrew. 2003. ‘Are Women Legislators Less Effective? Evidence from the U.S. House in the 103rd–105th Congress’. Political Research Quarterly 56(1):1927.
Kanter Rosebeth M. 1977. ‘Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women’. The American Journal of Sociology 82(5):965990.
Kanthak Kristin, and Krause George. 2013. The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kanthak Kristin, and Woon Jonathan. 2015. ‘Women Don’t Run? Election Aversion and Candidate Entry’. American Journal of Political Science 59(3):595612.
Karpowitz Christopher F., and Mendelberg Tali. 2014. The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Karpowitz Christopher F., Mendelberg Tali, and Shaker Lee. 2012. ‘Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation’. American Political Science Review 106(3):533547.
Kathlene Lyn. 1994. ‘Power and Influence in State Legislative Policymaking: The Interactions of Gender and Position in Committee Hearing Debates’. American Political Science Review 88(3):560576.
Krehbiel Keith. 1991. Information and Legislative Organization. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lazarus Jeffrey, and Steigerwalt Amy. 2011. ‘Politics or Policy: How Female Legislators are Forced to Choose’. Unpublished manuscript, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.
Leeper Mark S. 1991. ‘The Impact of Prejudice on Female Candidates: An Experimental Look at Voter Inference’. American Politics Quarterly 19(2):248261.
Little Thomas H., Dunn Dana, and Deen Rebecca E.. 2001. ‘A View from the Top: Gender Differences in Legislative Priorities Among State Legislative Leaders’. Women & Politics 22(4):2950.
Mansbridge Jane. 2005. ‘Quota Problems: Combating the Dangers of Essentialism’. Politics & Gender 1:622638.
Murphy Patricia. 1997. ‘Domestic Violence Legislation and the Police’. Women and Politics 18(2):2753.
Osborn Tracy L. 2012. How Women Represent Women: Political Parties, Gender, and Representation in the State Legislatures. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reingold Beth. 2000. Representing Women: Sex, Gender, and Legislative Behavior in Arizona and California. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Reingold Beth, and Swers Michele. 2011. ‘An Endogenous Approach to Women’s Interests: When Interests are Interesting in and of Themselves’. Politics & Gender 7(3):429435.
Richardson Lilliard E., and Freeman Patricia K.. 1995. ‘Gender Differences in Constituency Service Among State Legislators’. Political Research Quarterly 48(1):166179.
Rosenthal Cindy Simon. 1998. When Women Lead: Integrative Leadership in State Legislatures. New York: Oxford University Press.
Saint-Germain Michelle A. 1989. ‘Does Their Difference Make a Difference? The Impact of Women on Public Policy in the Arizona Legislature’. Social Science Quarterly 70(4):956968.
Schultze Corina. 2013. ‘Women, Earmarks, and Substantive Representation’. Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy 43(2):138158.
Squire Peverill. 1992. ‘Legislative Professionalism and Membership Diversity in State Legislatures’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 17(1):6979.
Swers Michele L. 1998. ‘Are Congresswomen More Likely to Vote for Women’s Issue Bills Than Their Male Colleagues?Legislative Studies Quarterly 23(3):435448.
Swers Michele L. 2002a. The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Swers Michelle L. 2002b. ‘Transforming the Agenda: Analyzing Gender Differences in Women’s Issue Bill Sponsorship’. In Cindy Rosenthal (ed.), Women Transforming Congress, 260283. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Swers Michelle L. 2005. ‘Connecting Descriptive and Substantive Representation: An Analysis of Sex Differences in Cosponsorship Activity’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 30:407433.
Tamerius Karin L. 1995. ‘Sex, Gender, and Leadership in the Representation of Women’. In Georgia Duerst-Lahti and Rita Mae Kelly (eds), Gender Power, Leadership, and Governance, 243250. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Thomas Sue. 1991. ‘The Impact of Women on State Legislative Policies’. Journal of Politics 54(4):958976.
Thomas Sue. 1992. ‘The Effects of Race and Gender on Constituency Service’. The Western Political Quarterly 45(1):169180.
Thomas Sue. 1994. How Women Legislate. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thomas Sue. 2005. ‘Cracking the Glass Ceiling’. In Sue Tolleson-Rinehart and Jyl J. Josephson (eds), Gender and American Politics: Women, Men, and the Political Process, 242263. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Volden Craig, and Wiseman Alan E.. 2014. Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress: The Lawmakers. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Volden Craig, Wiseman Alan E., and Wittmer Dana E.. 2013. ‘When are Women More Effective Lawmakers Than Men?American Journal of Political Science 57(2):326341.
Welch Susan. 1985. ‘Are Women More Liberal Than Men in the U.S. Congress?Legislative Studies Quarterly 10:125134.
Yoder Janice D. 1991. ‘Rethinking Tokenism: Looking Beyond Numbers’. Gender and Society 5:178192.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Political Science Research and Methods
  • ISSN: 2049-8470
  • EISSN: 2049-8489
  • URL: /core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Volden supplementary material
Online Appendix

 Word (15 KB)
15 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 94 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1463 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.