African American Women State Legislators: The Impact of Gender and Race on Legislative Influence

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2001

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Abstract

The increasing diversity of state legislatures coupled with the transference of power back to the states through devolution necessitates a closer look at these governing institutions. This study focuses on influence in state legislatures, questioning the impact of this increased diversity on the allocation of institutional influence. In this study, I specifically focus on the experiences of African American women state legislators to discern the impact of both race and gender on legislative influence. To do this, I analyzed both African American women's self-perceived influence, and their colleagues' perceptions. By utilizing an institutional approach, this analysis moves beyond state legislators' attributes and addresses the institutional and contextual variables that play a role in determining legislative influence. This study uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to address its major research questions. In addition to conducting the National Survey of African American Women State Legislators, I also conducted face-to-face interviews with a cross section of legislators in Georgia, Maryland and Mississippi; document analysis; and participant observation. The resulting data show that both gender and race play a role in determining who is regarded as influential in state legislatures. Reflective of the deeply embedded gender and race divides existing in the state legislatures studied, influence is found to be both race and gender specific. African American women's influence was largely limited to other African Americans. Few white legislators considered any African American legislators as influential. Further, I find that while some African American women have acquired the attributes that traditionally confer influence in state legislatures, they have not acquired the institutional power and influence that are traditionally associated with these attributes. I also find that the legislative context matters significantly in the allocation of legislative influence. African American women were more likely to be perceived as influential in more professional legislatures that preference knowledge of policy issues and prior expertise as opposed to less professional legislatures that were more apt to operate according to norms reflecting gender and race-based preferences. Overall, the findings of this dissertation confirm that preferences around gender and race have become institutionalized and manifest as norms governing legislative behavior. State legislatures, like other institutions do not escape the ills of their state's political culture; instead, they most often mirror it.

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