Women's Words: Gender and Speechmaking in Congress

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Abstract: Women have a unique impact in public office, particularly in the U.S. Congress. Studies of gender differences among legislative activities tend to focus on traditional indicators such as roll-call voting. However, speechmaking is a form of position taking that is antecedent to roll-call voting, and is more discretionary; members can choose whether to speak about a given issue. This greater discretion allows for the study of the intensity rather than simply the directionality of a member's positions. Therefore, I examine women's impact in Congress through an understudied activity critically important for the representation of marginalized constituencies: giving voice to concerns and interests through floor debate. I analyze the representation of women through a content analysis of congressional floor speeches. I find that female representatives are more likely to speak about women's experiences and concerns as well as issues associated with women, including children's issues, social issues, and issues pertinent to marginalized groups. However, I do not find that women representatives expand the definition of women's issues by speaking about women's concerns and experiences in issue areas traditionally defined as masculine. Using the feminine speech style framework, I also investigate whether women approach congressional discourse differently. Women are more likely to employ a rhetorical style that allows them to identify and connect with their constituents, as well as create a more personal and inclusive debate. Finally, I find some preliminary evidence that the presence of female members influences their male colleagues to speak about women's concerns as well. This suggests that women are expanding the scope of the conflict as well as transforming the terms of debate itself.