The author of two books on women and representation in Congress, Michele Swers is a professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Government, where she teaches American Politics. She sat down with JW Magazine to discuss what happens when women are elected to office, why she votes, and why it's important for others to do so as well. Part of our #VoteLikeAGirl series, the following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Why do you vote like a girl? Or to put it simply, why do you vote?
A: I’m a political science professor, so I’d really be doing my profession a disservice if I didn’t show up. But I think it’s very important to do your civic duty. If you look at the turnout levels at a midterm election, only 40 percent of eligible American voters vote. Only 60 percent of eligible American voters vote in a presidential election. There was recently a primary election in my own district, which is a highly educated district where people generally vote. The turnout in the primary election was only three percent! So in that sort of election, my vote actually carries quite a lot of weight and I need to be doing my part.
People complain about politics being gridlocked or politics being polarized, but if we don’t all vote, then only the people who are the most extreme and the most motivated are going to vote. You end up with a government that’s less likely to compromise. I think if we’re interested in more compromise, more people have to vote.
Q: Why should young women vote?
A: If we look at policy in the national government, members of Congress tend to be more responsive to people who vote. If you look at demographics, older Americans vote more. More educated Americans vote more. Wealthier Americans vote more. Young Americans don’t vote very much, and so therefore their voice is not heard as much on Capitol Hill. If you want more attention focused on issues important to young people, whether minimum wage, student loans, or whatever it is that you are interested in, you have to express yourself in the political process, both through voting and through advocacy.
Q: What happens when women are elected to Congress?
A: It’s complicated. In general, in the U.S., when we elect members they’re elected from districts rather than from parties, so they have to represent their constituency. However, even saying that and the fact that women are partisans first, you still do see gender differences in the issues that members decide to focus on. Particularly Democratic women and the moderate Republican women focus a lot more on what people would consider “women’s rights issues.” So things like domestic violence, reproductive rights, and contraception.
When you look at voting records, Democratic men and Democratic women look very similar in voting. But when you look at where they actually spend their time, the bills that they sponsor, the things that they take time to advocate, you’re going to see a lot more activism on women’s rights related policies from Democratic women and the moderate Republican women.
Q: Is there also a tendency for women representatives to be more proactive in general?
A: There is some evidence when people look at constituency-oriented projects that women are more active on that front and will focus a little bit more on their constituency and bring those types of projects back to the district. There’s also evidence that women are more active legislatively as sponsors. They sponsor more bills than men. When they’re in the minority party, they tend to reach across the aisle a little bit more than men do.
But these are averages. When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, Republicans would never describe her as bipartisan. She’s certainly an avid partisan. But on average, maybe you see a little bit more cooperation. It depends on the individual. It depends on their ideological leanings.
Q: Why is that? Why do you think that women representatives lead differently than their male peers?
A: Well, women are a minority in Congress, so particularly if you look at the Senate, they have made a point of creating this bipartisan sisterhood. They meet for dinner periodically. This allows them to talk and socialize outside of the rough and tumble of politics, and they don’t allow any staffers in. They particularly try to create a space where people can get along with each other and then that space sometimes leads to legislative collaboration.
That’s something that happens in the Senate. You don’t see that as much in the House. In the House there seems to be a lot of cohesiveness and collaboration among Democratic women with each other, but Republican women are not as cohesive a group. They are a much smaller group within the House, and they are much more ideologically diverse. You have some very, very conservative women and a few moderate women still left, and they really take things as individuals.
Q: Back in April, Donald Trump said, “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.” How instrumental are female voters in electing women?
A: In general, people don’t vote their gender; they vote their party. If I am a Democrat, I like Hillary Clinton. If I am a Republican, I don’t like Hillary Clinton very much. So the partisan queue is usually first. That said, on the Democratic side particularly, there will be more people who value the idea of diversity and think it’s important that there aren’t more women and minorities in office. They may then take that also into consideration.
You actually see it in the donor pools as well. Hillary Clinton has gotten a lot more money from female donors than past Democratic candidates. There are organizations—particularly EMILY’s List—that exist in order to encourage men and women to donate to pro-choice, female, Democratic candidates. So on the voter side, we see some evidence that women, particularly Democratic women, might be more likely to support women.
Q: Does your identity as a Jewish woman affect your interest in politics or how you vote?
A: I think my Jewish identity does affect my politics. I tend to be looking at and concerned about making sure that minorities are protected, because Jews have been a minority in the country for a long time. I am interested always in the position of Israel and support for Israel in the political atmosphere. When you see instances of anti-Semitism, it’s very worrisome, or when you see instances of people being anti-Islamic, it’s concerning as well. So yes, I think being a Jewish woman does influence my perspective and concern for making sure that the rights and interests of minorities are protected.