Political Science professor explains when gender matters in politics

The first womanelected vice president of the United States. A record number of women in Congress. The highest percentage of women in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Women are increasingly visible in American politics, a slow but steady climb that kicked off some 30 years ago and has increased incrementally every year since. Women represent 26% of congressional officeholders, while women make up 31% of Wisconsin’s Legislature, which is the average representation in state legislatures across the country.

Nobody understands the factors behind these developments better than Kathleen Dolan, distinguished professor of political science. She’s spent much of her career researching issues at the intersection of gender and politics. “Since the beginning,” Dolan says, “I have been intrigued by questions of whether and how and when gender matters to politics.”

Dolan’s research has followed two distinct lines of inquiry. The first focuses on female candidates, including the rates at which they run for office, the rates at which they win elections and whether gender matters in determining their success. The second aspect of Dolan’s research focuses on how gender matters when it comes to public opinion surrounding political issues.

People had long assumed that the reason there were so few women in office is because voters wouldn’t vote for women. But Dolan’s research disproved that notion.

Backed by funding from the National Science Foundation, she conducted a groundbreaking survey in 2010 of 3,000 people across the United States. She asked them about specific candidates in gubernatorial races as well as races for the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

As part of the study, Dolan focused on two categories of elections – one in which women ran against men and one in which two men were running. This allowed her to directly compare races that included women with races that only included men.

The results showed that people were just as likely to vote for female candidates as they were for male candidates. In the end, the research found that people voted for the candidate of their preferred party, regardless of whether they were a woman or a man. Dolan found no evidence that voters crossed party lines to vote for a male candidate.

“The main reason why there are so few women in office in the U.S. is because there are so few women who run,” Dolan says. “When they run, their rates of winning are at least as high as men, and often higher.”

Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether a female candidate runs as a Democrat or a Republican. Yes, there are many more Democratic women in public office than Republican women, but that’s only because there are many more women on Democratic tickets.

“If the goal is to increase the overall number of women in elected office, you have to have more women running in both parties,” Dolan says. “What has to change is that the number of women candidates needs to be more equally represented in both parties.”

There are some signs this may be happening. In the last 20 years, Dolan notes, about 70% of the women who ran for office ran as Democrats. In the 2020 election, a historic number of women ran for office, from Congress down to state-level seats. The increase in Republican female candidates outpaced the increase for Democratic ones, partly because the numbers among Republicans were smaller to begin with.

“In all of my work on women candidates and the public,” Dolan says, “what it shows is, overwhelmingly, people will vote for the candidate of their political party, regardless of whether it’s a woman or a man.”

Dolan’s research has also examined the public’s attitudes toward political issues, including the perceived reasons behind those attitudes. One of the most recent examples of this type of work is a paper published in summer 2020 in the journal American Politics Research.

Dolan and Michael A. Hansen, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, examined data from a survey called the American National Election Study. They looked at the attitudes of 2,500 people about a confluence of issues – Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, sexual harassment and voting in the 2018 midterm elections.

Dolan and Hansen found that the gender-salient issue of sexual harassment wasn’t necessarily a driver in the opinions of women in the study. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual harassment, and many women have experienced sexual harassment, leading to assumptions that it would color their views of Kavanaugh. Research showed that it did, but not as much as partisanship.

One key distinction was whether women identified as being sexually harassed. The survey asked women whether they’d been sexually harassed, and several said no, but that doesn’t mean they hadn’t been. They just didn’t identify it. “What that shows us is that there are some number of women who have been harassed and who identify having been harassed,” Dolan says, “and those are the women for whom that piece of their identity is going to come out in their politics.”

But the overarching factor in people’s views came down to partisanship. Simply put: Republican women liked Kavanaugh, and Democratic women didn’t.

This shows that women as a demographic group don’t share much of a consciousness about gender issues. “If you can’t get women to stand together around sexual violence,” Dolan says, “how are you going to get them to stand around child care and women’s rights in the workplace, or whatever it is?”

Dolan continues to work toward a fuller understanding of issues at the intersection of gender and politics. Her research has provided definitive answers to plenty of questions, but there are plenty more questions to come, especially as women increasingly seek – and gain – public office.

By Becky Lang, University Relations