By Joan Johnson-Freese & Alexandra Nicole Islas
The answer to this question is: not likely. The 118th Congress, extending from January 3, 2023 – January 3, 2025 includes 149 women (107D, 42R), two more than the previous record of 147, set in 2022, thereby constituting 27.9% of Congressional seats. However, beyond hyper-partisanship, differing views among Congresswomen regarding the meaning of “agency” is a neglected factor in the larger debate about women legislators and bipartisanship. Women have stepped forward in a bipartisan fashion on issues where there is no logical counterargument, such as the military needing to provide body armor appropriate to women soldier’s physiques or the need to keep the government open. But differing views on agency can be divisive. Understanding what agency is, differing views of how it is obtained and suppressed, as well as how agency affects gender relations and even violence provides a more granular view of what might be expected from the growing number of women legislators.
In 2013, a U.S. government shutdown seemed inevitable until a bipartisan group of 20 women senators saved the day. Time magazine heralded them as “the only adults left in Washington” for their willingness to reach across the aisle and find a compromise that avoided a costly shutdown. In that article Senator John McCain said, “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them,” inferring that women lawmakers would act more cooperatively than their male counterparts.
Research indicates that men and women tend to act differently regarding how they approach conflict resolution. Of the five types of conflict resolution approaches—competing, avoidance, accommodating, compromise and collaboration—men favor the first two, and women the last three. But women are not always and inherently peacemakers. The 2013 example of bipartisanship may have been a one-off because the Senators saw it in everyone’s interest to keep the U.S. government open as both parties get blamed when the government shuts down.
The Importance of Personal Agency
Agency is an often overlooked and little understood concept of significant importance. Social science researchers have found that personal agency, simply stated as the ability to take meaningful action in your own interest, correlates with feelings of happiness and life satisfaction because it allows individuals to feel in control of their own lives. For example, a 2011 study found that conservatives were happier than liberals, in part because of their strong sense of personal agency. Recently, however, conservative—typically Republicans—have been described and describe themselves as angry, some even supportive of political violence, with many feeling a loss of agency (e.g. control over their personal circumstances) they once felt. A recent Secret Service report on mass violence in the U.S. cites men facing “major life stressors” as a key component in the dramatic rise in mass violence.
Feelings of loss of control among white, often poor, American men have given rise to the Great Replacement Theory, a racist, sexist, anti-immigration theory that blames negative circumstances on others and pushes authoritarian responses to address their woes. Men who believe this theory feel angry at women, believing they are among those “stealing their jobs” and robbing them of their masculinity, and control. Given the traditional dominance of men, including in writing and interpreting laws, they have been allowed to suppress women’s agency. Now, the shifting sands of who is gaining and losing personal agency has affected both men and women.
Agency can be suppressed through personal experience as well. In environments where “the system” isn’t trusted, and where women have seen others report harassment or assault and nothing was done or the woman suffered backlash, women who should have agency based on legal principles nevertheless often do not exercise it. In the United States, an estimated one in three women experience sexual assault in their lifetime, but only 28% of sexual assault victims report their assault to the police. In the workplace specifically, the well-publicized U.S. example of sexual harassment at Fox News by CEO Roger Ailes was exposed only after years of fear-based toleration.
Agency Among Women Lawmakers
Regarding shaping and voting on legislation, important differences exist among women regarding how one “gets” and maintains agency. Generally, liberal women support policies and laws advancing women’s rights and thereby seek to grant agency to women as a group. Conservative women, however, tend to support traditionally held conservative tenets of gender blindness, limited government, individualism and traditionalism, thereby making agency an individual issue and placing emphasis on personal tenacity and self-reliance. Conservatives believe that most people get ahead if they work hard. Conservative women often associate feminism with “victimization” and adamantly reject any such association, focusing instead on positive personal achievement. Rather than #MeToo, “moving on” is the mantra of conservative women, as a superior vision of female empowerment.
These differing views on agency shapes legislation. Liberals, for example, see reproductive health as a group issue and support legislation to require employers and insurance companies to cover contraception costs as part of health care. Conservatives, on the other hand, including conservative women, will more likely see cost coverage as a personal responsibility and vote against government intervention requiring employers or insurance carriers to provide such.
Regarding women in the workforce, views on agency can also intercede, evidenced in a 2020 fight in California over “gig work” at places like Uber and Lyft. All of the 21 women that voted yes on the bill were Democrat, while both of the two women that voted no were Republican. Whereas liberal women there supported efforts to mandate that gig work pay benefits that help women as a group long-term, conservative women argued against such efforts as hindering individual women’s near-term opportunities to earn (flexible gig work often being attractive to women) if businesses pay workers less due to having to pay benefits.
Another aspect of workforce disagreement is found regarding the gender pay gap. Many Republican women see the gap as attributable to choices women freely make about professions and jobs that result in lower pay, part of what is frequently referred to as choice feminism. When the House voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act in December 2022 not one Republican woman voted in favor, arguing the bill would spur more litigation against employers and therefore hurt women in the workforce. The bill required employers to prove why pay disparities between sexes existed, banned employers from asking employees about their salary history and built in avenues for employee recourse if they thought they were being paid unfairly. Republican Representative Elise Stefanik offered an alternative bill, the Wage Equity Act, that would encourage but not require employers to conduct voluntary pay analyses and protect workers who discuss their pay with colleagues, but under employer-set parameters.
Following a “Golden Age” of bipartisanship between 1969-79, U.S. Congressional bipartisanship has dropped significantly overall. The Lugar Center – McCourt School Bipartisan Index provides scores and rankings for Members of Congress that measure bill sponsorship and co-sponsorship data based on the degree to which members of opposite parties agree on the same issue with their votes. Looking at the data from 2021, of the 435 Members of Congress total, 24% had a positive bipartisan score, with women making up only 26% within that number. Women operating in a still male-dominated environment often feel especially bound to uphold the positions of their designated political party, thereby suppressing their agency as legislators.
Navigating voter and partisan constraints on agency has been an issue for women in both political parties. Republican women lawmakers and 2022 candidates, for example, found reproductive rights a difficult minefield to navigate after the Republican-supported 2022 Supreme Court reversal of Roe v Wade and the subsequent landslide win for reproductive rights in Kansas. On the Democratic side, progressive women have found themselves at odds with their more conservative party leadership, which is largely motivated by a drive for party consensus, thus inhibiting their agency. Further, women frequently have less power than men to combat the backlash that is commonly present when straying across party lines, especially on highly polarized issues; witness Liz Cheney’s fall from grace in the Republican party.
But all is not lost. There are a number of issues of concern to all women ripe for addressing through legislation. A recent study found women politicians are more than three times as likely to be targeted by harassment or threats than their male counterparts. The anger and violence among white men spurred by their feelings of lost agency has been a trigger for women being targeted. With their numbers growing, Republican women politicians are finding themselves targets of misogynist colleagues and pundits much as Democratic women politicians long have experienced, giving both a vested interest in addressing the doxxing, trolling, sexual deepfakes, harassment, and violence that all women politicians suffer.
Mid-term elections evidenced many voters stepping away from extremism, which perhaps will open the door for cooperation or compromise among more women on more issues. And, as the number of women legislators increase, the pressures for them to conform to the masculine competitive ethos of their still-dominant male counterparts will wane. When that happens, the full extent of Senator McCain’s 2013 statement will be put to the test. Sometimes, reframing issues away from ones of contention like correcting the gender wage gap towards those likely to get more women into non-traditional workforces, which both parties support, provides space for bipartisanship. A willingness to consider reframing issues to ones where cooperation can occur might prove the bipartisan difference women can make.
The opinions expressed here are solely the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates
Joan Johnson-Freese is a Senior Fellow with Women in International Security and the author of multiple books and articles on women and politics, her latest is Women vs Women, The Case for Cooperation (2022). https://joanjohnsonfreese.carrd.co/
Alexandra Nicole Islas is pursuing a degree in the field of International Relations at Harvard Extension School, and is a Research Assistant for Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese on issues related to Women, Peace & Security. She is also an accomplished dancer, writer, and human rights advocate focusing on increased security through the development of arts and education programs internationally. https://scholar.harvard.edu/alexandranicoleislas