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Is There Really Such Thing as a Woman Card?

The “woman card” isn’t worth much in politics. Should it be?

By Dwyer Gunn


Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Last week, Donald Trump gave a now-infamous victory press conference in which he suggested that Hillary Clinton’s sole political asset was her gender. “The only card she has is the woman’s card; she’s got nothing else going,” Trump told reporters. “And, frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the women’s card.”

Trump’s comments spawned a new Twitter hashtag, resulted in a record fundraising haul for the Clinton campaign, and inspired dozens of op-eds. While most of the media commentary focused on the political ramifications of Trump’s comments and the question of whether women in politics have an unfair gender advantage (hint: nope), an op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Jill Filipovic made a different argument. Maybe, Filipovic wrote, more female politicians should play the “woman card,” and maybe more voters should factor gender into their voting decisions. Filipovic cited evidence that American congresswomen may be more effective than their male counterparts, and argued that exposure matters:

We can’t change longstanding assumptions about what a leader looks like unless we change what leaders look like. That means a party dedicated to diversity must champion politicians who aren’t white men — even if there’s a white man who is equally qualified, or the obvious choice.

Right now, “the woman card” and “the race card” are broadly seen as cynical tactics. Democrats should make them central components of a winning hand.

While Americans have a contentious relationship with this kind of policy, approximately half of the world’s countries feature political gender quotas, and evidence from an interesting experiment in India suggests that Filipovic indeed has a point. In 1998, the Indian state of West Bengal began to randomly reserve one-third of village council leader positions for women. In villages with reserved councils, only women are permitted to run for the leader position, a system that guarantees a woman will be elected to the role. (Unlike, say, Brazil’s political quota system, which mandates a certain percentage of female candidates, but hasn’t had much of an effect on the percentage of elected politicians who are female.)

A team of economists—Lori A. Beaman, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova—then surveyed men and women about their perceptions of female leaders either in villages that had never been exposed to a female leader, villages that had been exposed to a (mandatory) female leader once, or villages that had been exposed to a (mandatory) female leader twice.

The researchers, who published their findings in 2009, found that, in villages that had never been exposed to a female leader, both men and women took a pretty dim view of female leaders, seeing them as less effective than their male counterparts. Villagers who had been randomly exposed to a female leader as a result of the quotas, however, felt differently — in particular, male villagers still had a preference for male leaders, but they viewed hypothetical male and female leaders as equally effective. Beaman and her co-authors also found that perceptions and social norms don’t change overnight:

Specifically, in villages where the leadership position is reserved for the first time and only time in 2003, leader ratings by male villagers are significantly lower relative to villages where the leader position has never been reserved. Despite their poor evaluation, we show that first time female leaders deliver more public goods and take less bribes than their male counterparts. The difference in ratings between men and women leaders is absent in villages where the leader position is reserved for women for the second time in 2003.

Analyzing the gender breakdown of the 2008 village council elections (positions which are not subject to the quota), the researchers found that the quota system had long-lasting effects on female political participation. In villages where the council leader position had been reserved for women twice (in 1998 and 2003), almost twice as many women were elected to council positions.

The United States, of course, is not West Bengal, and it’s not clear if the results can be generalized to apply to a more developed country. A 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, for example, found that a corporate board quota instituted in Norway in 2003 didn’t have much of an effect on women who weren’t direct beneficiaries of the quota. Nonetheless, the argument that exposure to female leaders can challenge social norms and change people’s perceptions of what leaders “look like” is not without merit.

“Our results suggest that, in political settings where such strategies [policies which limit awareness of a candidate’s gender] are infeasible, political affirmative action may play an important medium-run role,” Beaman and her co-authors concluded in their 2009 report. “While the first generation of women who are powerful political figures may encounter significant prejudice, their experience can pave the way for others to go further.”