International Feminist Journal of Politics


Women are gaining more legislative seats - why are they forming women's caucuses once they take those seats?


Melinda Adams, John Scherpereel & Kristin Wylie

In the 2018 U.S. elections, the percentage of women members of the House of Representatives jumped from 19.4% to 23.7%. In recent decades, similar upticks have occurred in many countries. Since the end of World War II—and particularly since the early 1990s—the world’s national legislatures have experienced rises (some gradual, others quite dramatic) in levels of women’s descriptive representation.

But - there is no simple link between descriptive representation, on one hand, and women’s leadership, substantive representation, or equality within legislatures, on the other. Women who overcome barriers to election often encounter new obstacles once they take their parliamentary seats.

To take just one example of post-election marginalization, women parliamentarians report much higher levels of sexism, harassment, and violence than men parliamentarians.

“Women in Politics: The Reform Brazil Needs” – Brazil’s  Bancada Feminina  (Women’s Caucus) mobilizing on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies during debates over proposed political reforms.  ( Luis Macedo/Câmara dos Deputados )

“Women in Politics: The Reform Brazil Needs” – Brazil’s Bancada Feminina (Women’s Caucus) mobilizing on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies during debates over proposed political reforms.
(Luis Macedo/Câmara dos Deputados)

Women parliamentarians have thus fought to build gender-focused parliamentary institutions (GFPIs) to transform the gendered structures, practices, and discourses that they encounter once they have taken up office. While GFPIs can take multiple forms, our recent IFJP article explores the conditions under which one increasingly popular GFPI—the women’s legislative caucus—emerges.

In the years that have elapsed between 1978—when critical actors in the U.S. House of Representatives established the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues—legislators in over eighty countries have established women’s legislative caucuses. These caucuses are always open to members from multiple parties, but their purposes vary from one context to the next. Sometimes, caucuses champion specific bills that promote “women’s interests” (see debate on how to identify “women’s interests”); they can also promote general legislative collaboration among members and mentoring between senior and junior members. Regardless of their specific focus, caucuses provide a scaffold that helps to enable the work of women officeholders.

In seeking to evaluate when and why legislators establish a caucus, we examine factors related to diffusion (e.g., if one country’s legislators establish a caucus, are legislators in a neighboring country more likely to do the same?), social structures (e.g., are caucuses more common in countries with higher levels of women’s labor force participation and education?), and political institutions (e.g., are legislators in democracies more likely than legislators in non-democracies to establish a caucus?).

We find that the likelihood of caucus establishment rises when sub-regional peers (e.g., “neighboring” legislators) have established a caucus, when women’s international non-governmental organizations are active in a country, and when the country that legislators serve has established an electoral quota designed to promote women’s representation.

The latter finding has significant implications: it suggests that there is no single institutional panacea for mitigating women’s political marginalization. Even as gender equity instruments diffuse around the world, women’s political empowerment remains elusive. Women face varied barriers in diverse sectors of the political realm. Critical, strategic actors continue to confront such obstacles in inventive ways.

For more, check out the full article: The Adoption of Women’s Legislative Caucuses Worldwide.