A large body of research has been devoted to answering a fundamental question: Do women substantively represent women more effectively than men do? In hundreds of studies examining large data sets of roll call votes, bill sponsorship, laws enacted and other measures the answer is clear. “Across time, office, and political parties,” political scientist Beth Reingold writes in a comprehensive review, “women, more often than men, take the lead on women’s issues, no matter how such issues are defined.”
Consider just a handful of these studies. Georgetown University’s Michele Swers has found, among other things, that both Democratic and moderate Republican women in Congress have been more likely than men in either party to advance legislation on child care and domestic violence. Even when men and women in the same party hold similar opinions — on reproductive health issues, for example — it is the women officeholders who step up. This is particularly clear at the state level, where legislatures with more women have passed fewer abortion restrictions. Another study analyzed every instance in which a U.S. House seat switched between a woman and man between 1973 and 2002. Controlling for multiple factors, the model generated by that analysis predicts that Democratic and Republican women will offer three times more feminist bills than their male counterparts will…
The scholarship, and anecdotal evidence like Mikulski’s story, argues that women should take their distinctive interests and concerns as women into account when they decide how to vote. But we don’t often hear about the interest-based case for electing women.
Certainly part of the explanation is that women voters care about many issues, not just “women’s issues.” Still, their aversion to explicitly advocating for themselves, I suspect, stems from fear of being labeled selfish. From childhood, women imbibe the notion that selfishness, like ambition, make them unlikable and untrustworthy. This may be part of how we get to a moment in which white working-class men’s overwhelming support for Trump or Sanders is called a “movement,” while women’s support for Clinton is dismissed as touchy-feely “identity politics.”