New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity -- Gender and Race in American State Legislatures
Wendy Smooth, Assistant Professor of Women's Studies, Ohio State University, speaker; commentators Kerry Haynie, Associate Professor of Political Science, and Co-director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences, Duke University; Toni-Michelle Travis, Associate Professor of Government and Politics, and Program Director of African-American Studies, George Mason University.
The federal government has scaled back its involvement in many areas of domestic policy in recent years, and state legislatures are filling the gap. The question of how well the state institutions address the needs of disadvantaged groups therefore becomes increasingly important. Prof. Wendy Smooth, exploring this question in the eighteenth program in the Division of U.S. Studies' Race and Ethnicity series, presented her study of African-American women in three state legislatures.
Political scientists began studying the ability of political institutions to represent a variety of citizens and foster a sense of equality during the 1960s when, Smooth observed, state legislatures were largely composed of white males. By the early 1990s, however, there was a significant increase in the number of women legislators, particularly in the South. Smooth's study considered the experiences of African-American women in the Maryland, Mississippi, and Georgia state legislatures during the 2000 legislative session.
Smooth asked members of the legislatures to describe the influence of African-American women and found that the traditional model of political incorporation – attaining seniority or key committee positions – did not necessarily work for minorities. She discovered, for example, that when an African-American woman attained a key committee position in Georgia, the leadership changed institutional rules so as to diminish her power. Members of the Mississippi and Georgia legislatures described power as being held by small informal groups of legislators that met privately to set the agenda for the larger governing body, thereby bypassing the input of those excluded from such groups.
This contrasted somewhat with the Maryland state legislature, which places more of an emphasis on professional expertise. While at the time of the study only one black woman (out of 141 legislators) held a senior position in the legislature, its African-American women members who lacked what Smooth called "general influence" were nonetheless able to exert "issue-specific influence" in areas where they were recognized as possessing expertise.
Smooth concluded that while democratic institutions may hold the promise of equality, many have maintained existing power structures that exclude minority representation. In order for political scientists to measure the impact of African-American women's presence in state legislatures adequately, Smooth argued that they must examine the alternative approaches African-American women have employed: forming coalitions with the executive branch, building alliances with the African-American caucus and women's caucus, and engaging in individual acts of resistance on the House floor. Their access to power has important policy implications, as the women studied tended to emphasize education, health care, economic development, and women's and children's issues.
Prof. Kerry Haynie noted that political scientists in recent years have uncovered substantial evidence that political representation is both gendered and racialized. Unlike Smooth's work, much of that research has not examined the experience in government of women of color, who are at the intersection race and gender politics. Smooth's research is important as well because it undermines the assumption in political science literature that all leadership positions within state legislatures confer equal influence. Haynie argued that the mere presence of African-American women legislators brings pressure to bear on the existing power structure, and added that it will be important to see how their continued influence impacts that structure.
Toni-Michelle Travis suggested that factors in addition to those considered by Smooth might well affect African-American women legislators' influence. Were the women's professional backgrounds, for example, in law and business, or in education and social work? How long had they been in office? To what extent was their or others' influence affected by one-party rule? What was the general political culture of the legislatures? She agreed with Haynie, however, that Smooth's work offers important insights into the possibility for democratic inclusion of disadvantaged groups in American political bodies.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129