Susan Carroll on the Campbell Conversations

Mar 9, 2019

The midterm elections in November produced a record number of women in Congress, and a record number of women have come forward as candidates for president. How important are these changes for our democracy, and what's driving them? Is it a reaction to President Trump, or something more lasting? This week, Grant Reeher talks with Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

Interview highlights

Reeher: President Trump likes to take credit for things. Are the record numbers of women in Congress and the record numbers of women running for president something that we can, in a sense, thank him for?

Carroll: That’s an interesting way to look at it, but I guess the answer is really kind of “yes.” I think we saw in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump’s presidency the Women’s March. We’ve seen the #MeToo Movement. We’ve seen a lot of activism by women, not only in terms of women running for office but in other kinds of ways. So, he did in fact generate a lot of interest on the part of Democratic women to run for office. And in fact, this year was a year for Democratic, more so than Republican, women, and the House of Representatives actually went backwards in terms of numbers, whereas the Democrats went way up. So, it really brought women to the forefront. Many of them had otherwise, might not of otherwise thought about running for office, but they were just so appalled either by his policy positions or by the behavior he was seeing, and some of them by the fact that they had expected Hillary Clinton to win, and she did not. And they were disappointed at that, and they just realized it was time to take the bull by the horns, so to speak.

Reeher: You mentioned the different factors that contributed to this, the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win, the political effects of that collective disappointment, the reaction to President Trump. Were there others that don’t get talked about as much that might be components of why we saw so many women running and winning?

Carroll: Well, there were a lot of long-term factors that have been in the works for a while, like there’s a fair amount of candidate training and trying to identify women and bring women to come forward. We actually run a program out of the Center for American Women and Politics called Ready to Run, which started in New Jersey, but we’ve now found partners in various states across the country. So, it is a candidate training program. It’s a program to try to get women who are interested in politics to build some skills, to provide them with some role models, to give them concrete information that they need to run for office. So, those things have been in place now for a while. So, that’s part of it too. And there’s an infrastructure for women candidates now, too. Emily’s List is the most highly visible, recognized part of that infrastructure. … They’ve basically equalized the playing field for women running at the Congressional level by providing resources that women otherwise wouldn’t have. And it’s not just money – because it is money – but it’s also a network connecting them to technical expertise. So, for women running to Congress, there is this equalizer, and there has been for a while, and then, there also are PACs – Political Action Committees – similar ones, small ones at the state level in several states. … So, there’s an infrastructure now to support women running for office. So, there are long-term factors that were at play, and there were short-term factors that were at play.

Reeher: Do you think this is an outlier blip on the radar screen, or do you think this is a more permanent inflection point for women in politics in the United States?

Carroll: That’s the $64,000 question if ever I heard one. We don’t know yet; it’s too soon. It’s too soon to tell. I’m optimistic that we’re really in the midst of a sea change and that this is going to continue, that we’re at a new normal, not necessarily that we will see the type of gains that we saw in this election in upcoming elections, but that the normal has gone up, the baseline’s gone up and that we would be able to maintain these gains and build on them. So, that I feel fairly confident about, but it’s going to be 10 years out before we know whether this is something permanent or some sort of one-time one-off event.

Reeher: Once women come forward as candidates, or want to be potential candidates, still today, what particular disadvantages do they have in trying to win? Is it a level playing field? Or what still remains there that might stand in their way?

Carroll: I don’t think it is a completely level playing field. … One of the things we ask of women in Congress, when we interviewed women who were serving – and this was the 114th Congress – was about the challenges they faced in the institution. And what surprised us … was that they said the challenges were greater getting there … than the challenges being there. So, they think challenges still remain in terms of campaigning for office. Fundraising is a piece of it. … Primaries are a problem, getting support through primaries. Getting people to believe in you early – before they are sure that you’re a viable candidate – is a problem area for women. And raising early money in those primaries because, generally speaking, … a lot of the women in primaries don’t have a basis of financial support, so they rely on their own resources, and it’s a little bit harder.

Reeher: So, I want to get into your book now and draw on that and also the other research that’s been done in this area that you are an expert on and explore what differences it makes having more women in elected positions. What’s the evidence on this? And certainly, from the standpoint of democratic legitimacy, I think it’s obvious that having more women in elected office is important. But beyond that, do women tend to behave differently as political representatives in important ways? What are the differences?

Carroll: Well, I can tell you what they told us, because we did talk to women in Congress. And what they told us is that they bring different life experiences, and that gives them different perspectives, and that they’re perspectives that need to be represented at the table when decisions are being made. So, they’ll talk about – particularly, a lot of them talk about – being moms or being caregivers, women’s roles as caregivers, and that that gives them different perspectives. They’ll talk about how, “well, we’re all different, so we all have different perspectives, but we share these experiences of being caregivers,” that that seems to be a commonality. And they feel that that gives them a different way of thinking, not only in terms of things that we think of as women’s issues, but other kinds of policies as well. So, they see themselves as bringing different perspectives to bear because of their experiences. And also, even [in the] workforce, women are in all kinds of occupations a lot. They’re more likely to be teachers. They’re more likely to be nurses and health care professionals. So, they bring those perspectives to bear as well. So, there’s a variety. It’s not just the family role but also experiences outside the family that they bring to bear. And it’s both in terms of agenda-setting in terms of bringing new issues to the table that otherwise might not’ve been seen – which of course is what the feminist movement has been about for several years. … It’s also when they’re debating things we might not think of as gendered issues, but they’ll think about the issues on families and children. They say they’re more likely to than the men who are sitting at the table.

Reeher: You talked about some of the policy differences, some of the agenda-setting differences that might be as a result of having more women in elected positions and then also in the perspectives they bring on many or most policy issues. Is it fair to say that, when you add that all up, one of the differences are that women are more liberal than men? Or is that not fair to say?

Carroll: I don’t know if it’s fair to say that women are more liberal than men because I think they span the ideological spectrum. It depends on how you define liberal. If you define being concerned about family issues and social policy issues as liberal, then perhaps. But you have to realize that the Republican women who are in Congress are uniformly, I think … pro-life. That’s just generally not seen as a liberal policy position by any stretch of the imagination. So, they will bring, for example, they’ll talk about abortion, and they’ll see it as having to do with their roles and bringing their experiences as women. But where they end up on the issue is very different from where the progressive Democratic women end up on the issue. So, the same life experience can result in very different perspectives, and they still bring their perspectives, but they can result in different kinds of political positioning.

Reeher: Let’s think about the way that women approach leadership roles and their styles as leaders within the chamber. … Is there evidence that they engage in those behaviors differently, that they approach leadership differently than men?

Carroll: One of the things we did explore in our research was if they saw themselves as going about their legislative business differently. Uniformly, we heard over and over again that they were motivated differently than men, that men are more likely to be motivated by personal ambition, that the women are more results-oriented, that the women are there not to be somebody but to bring about change because of policy issues that they care about. And they talked about how women are problem-solvers. They really see themselves as problem-solvers. They’ve come to Congress to solve problems, not necessarily to advance their own ambition. Of course, they are ambitious. We’ve got five women from Congress running for president, so it’s not that they don’t have personal ambition. But that’s not what motivates them, primarily, as they see it.

Reeher: Does that make them more collaborative, do you think, and inclusive in the way that they go about these things?

Carroll: They do say that. They tend to think that they are more collaborative in their style, that they want to include more people, that they’re more likely to seek consensus. Now, an interesting question is does that mean they’re more bipartisan? And we asked that of them as well. And some of them said no, that men and women are equally bipartisan, but a majority said they thought the women were more bipartisan and more likely to try to reach across the aisle and try to work with people who didn’t agree with them, again, because they see themselves as problem-solvers.

Reeher: Are there differences in the ways that they deal with their constituents?

Carroll: I don’t know if there’s evidence that they’re different, but I can tell you from talking with them that they are very responsive to constituents. But so, I think if you talked to male members of Congress, [they would say] that they’re very responsive as well. I think part of being a member of Congress is that you better be responsive to your constituents or you’re not going to be there very long, probably. But they give examples of where constituents have come to see them and brought issues to their attention, and they’ve moved them forward. So, it’s not just constituent service in the sense of solving individual problems but really, sometimes, it leads to legislation for them, that they become aware of something they need to do. So, they definitely see themselves as very constituent-oriented. I don’t have the data for the men, so I can’t really tell you that the men see themselves as less constituency-oriented.

Reeher: This is an age-old debate in social science, but I wanted to get your take on it. Do you expect that some of the differences that you’re talking about might fade a bit if women go onto have more complete parity in elected positions? … In other words, are some of these differences in style, in policy, forged out of the experience of having less power, being disadvantaged, or are they baked-in differences based on sex? Is it possible to distinguish those? And where do you come down on that?

Carroll: You can’t completely distinguish that, but I think they would say – and I guess I would agree with them – that we sort of hope the differences go away over time as women get parity because the institution changes, in other words, that their different perspectives, their different styles, will help to change the institution itself and change behavior. And there’s evidence that men’s behavior has changed somewhat. Just in that most superficial way, they’re decorum’s a little better from the presence of women, and also that they’re attentive, the women, in their constituencies now. And they’ve discovered that women’s issues, some of these issues are very popular with their constituents and can help them win votes. So, men’s behavior does change in response to having more women colleagues. That’s pretty clear, at least anecdotally even if we don’t have good, hard data on it. So, I think these women would say their hope is definitely that they will change the institution. The institution will change with them, not so much that they will change totally to fit the institution.

Reeher: I wanted to take some time and look at the presidential candidate pool so far, in particularly in terms of gender. And there’s a record number of women. Is there anything about group or anything about that dynamic so far of the emergence of candidates for president standing out to you in this issue of women in politics?

Carroll: What’s standing out is there are a lot of them, relative to what there’s been before. We’ve been lucky to have one or two women running for the presidency across both parties, even. And so, this is just totally unprecedented, but I think about having all these women run is that the kind of stereotyping that happened, I think, with Hillary Clinton, and also with other women who have run historically, is less likely to happen this time because these women are different, and there are many of them. So, it’s not going to be possible to talk about the woman candidate in the race. They’re breaking down the notion that there is one way for a woman to run or that there’s one style. I think we’re already seeing that.

Reeher: Are we now, do you think, at a point where it’s just simply a matter of time, having the right candidate, to have a woman as president? Or do you think there is still something out there that needs to be overcome before we’re finally get a woman in the oval office?

Carroll: I think there’s something out there that needs to be overcome, but I think we’re very close to the time. And I’m hoping it occurs in the next election cycle or two. I think the fact that there are this many women coming forward and running is a big first step. I think Hillary Clinton broke down huge barriers for women. The very fact that we had our first major party nominee, that was the first step. And even though she didn’t quite get over the finish line in terms of electoral votes at least, nevertheless, she was a pathbreaker, and she really did break down barriers. And these women are going to do the same thing, even if none of these women who are running this year emerge as the ultimate Democrat candidate, or even if none of them is elected president in 2020. Nevertheless, the very fact that they’re all running is like the next big step. So, with each successive election, I think we’re getting a little closer. And maybe it’ll happen this time.