The Changing Face of Representation: The Gender of U. S. Senators and Constituent Communications

The Changing Face of Representation: The Gender of U. S. Senators and Constituent Communications

by Kim Fridkin, Patrick Kenney


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As the number of women in the U.S. Senate grows, so does the number of citizens represented by women senators. At the same time, gender remains a key factor in senators’ communications to constituents as well as in news media portrayals of senators. Focusing on 32 male and female senators during the 2006 congressional election year, Kim L. Fridkin and Patrick J. Kenney examine in detail senators’ official websites, several thousand press releases and local news stories, and surveys of 18,000 citizens to discern constituents’ attitudes about their senators.

The authors conclude that gender role expectations and stereotypes do indeed constrain representational and campaign messages and influence news coverage of both candidates and elected senators. Further, while citizens appear to be less influenced by entrenched stereotypes, they pay more attention to female senators’ messages and become more knowledgeable about them, in comparison to male senators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472119233
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/31/2014
Series: The CAWP Series in Gender and American Politics
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kim L. Fridkin is Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University.

Patrick J. Kenney is the Dean of Social Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Associate Vice President of Research, and Director of The Institute for Social Science Research at Arizona State University. 

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The Changing Face of Representation

The Gender of U.S. Senators and Constituent Communications

By Kim L. Fridkin, Patrick J. Kenney

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11923-3


The Senator's Gender and Representational Messages

"I have always felt the special concern and the unique responsibility to single out those issues that are so important and critical to the future of women, and to make those changes, because [women's] voices can't be heard otherwise ... But I think that women in Congress, in both the House and the Senate as well, will give special attention to those issues. We tend to carve them out as priorities, and that's important, because so often women have been overlooked as a priority in some of the issues, or the role they play in our society."


In the wake of the historic presidential and congressional elections of 2008, it was clear that President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress were focused on passing the most far-reaching and significant piece of health-care legislation since Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law on July 30, 1965. President Obama urged Congress to pass health-care reform during numerous speeches, including his State of the Union address in 2009. Republican and Democratic representatives introduced 133 bills related to health care during the first year of the 111th Congress (Jan. 2009–Dec. 2009).

Senators and House members spent the spring, summer, and fall of 2009 communicating with constituents about the health-care proposals churning through committees in Congress. They posted messages on their websites, they sent press releases to the national and local press; they canvassed their states and districts, appearing at town-hall meetings, in school gymnasiums, at picnics; and they met with members of interest groups and with professional lobbyists. Conversations between legislators and constituents were characterized by a back-and-forth, sometimes combustible, mixture of listening, explaining, emphasizing, and justifying views about the government's role in health-care coverage at the start of the 21st century.

In Maryland, where citizens live in the shadow of Capitol Hill, Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski and Senator Ben Cardin were busy discussing their views of health-care reform to over 5.7 million constituents. For 73-year-old Senator Mikulski, born and educated in Baltimore, health care has been a central feature of her life's work. Before politics, Mikulski cut her teeth working with people who slipped through the health-care system in jobs with Catholic charities and Baltimore's Department of Social Services. Elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1971, Mikulski captured a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977 representing Maryland's 3rd Congressional District; in 1987 she began representing every Maryland citizen as U.S. senator when she defeated Republican Linda Chavez by nearly 20 points in the 1986 U.S. Senate race.

As the details of the health-care-reform legislation began to take shape in the winter of 2009, Senator Mikulski issued a series of public statements to her constituents in late November and early December. She posted 11 press releases on her Senate website; 6 of these statements focused directly on health care, including "Mikulski puts Women First in Health Care Reform Debate" (11/30/09), "Mikulski Applauds Senate Passage of Bill to Support the Caregivers of our Wounded Veterans" (11/20/09), "Mikulski to Introduce Amendment Guaranteeing Mammogram Coverage for Women Beginning at Age 40" (11/19/09), and "Mikulski Troubled by New Mammogram Recommendations" (11/18/11).

On December 3, 2009, the Senate approved Senator Mikulski's amendment safeguarding coverage of mammograms and preventive screening tests for women under the newly revised health-care system. The Mikulski Amendment gave the Health and Human Services secretary authority to require health plans to cover these additional preventive services for women. The amendment passed the Senate on a vote of 61–39.

Senator Mikulski highlighted her legislative achievement in press releases posted on her official senate website. She explained, "Without this amendment, there would be no guarantee that women under 50 would be covered for mammograms, no guarantee of an annual women's health exam that would include screenings for heart disease, and no guarantee that women would have access to this preventive care at no cost. ... Insurance companies have used every trick in the book to deny coverage to women. This amendment makes sure that the insurance companies must cover the basic preventive care that women need at no cost. ... Women can count on me to keep fighting for them on the Senate floor and all the way to the White House to end punitive insurance company practices that treat simply being a woman as a pre-existing condition."

Senator Mikulski's junior colleague from Maryland, Senator Ben Cardin, was also busy discussing his legislative priorities with constituents in November 2009. Senator Cardin had been in the U.S. Congress for over 25 years. He, too, was born in Baltimore. Senator Cardin began his career in politics by winning a seat in the Maryland state legislature in 1967 and he became Speaker of the Maryland House in 1979. In 1986, as Mikulski ran for U.S. Senator, Senator Cardin was elected to Maryland's 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mikulski's former seat. Senator Cardin was elected nine times to the House before deciding to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. He was elected to the Senate by defeating Republican Michael Steele by approximately eight points. Both as a House member and as a senator, Senator Cardin has voted consistently with other Democrats in Congress, especially on matters of health care. He voted for the Mikulski Amendment in late 2009.

Yet, in the weeks leading up to the vote on the Mikulski Amendment, Senator Cardin issued 11 press releases, of which only two dealt with health-related issues. In contrast to the messages sent by Senator Mikulski, neither of his press releases dealt specifically with women's health care; instead, Senator Cardin covered a more diverse set of communications, such as warning against cyberterrorism, praising the EPA for its decision to continue testing ethanol blends, and championing human rights in Asia.

By the summer and fall of 2009, the health-care discussion had become deeply partisan, with Democrats in Congress, by and large, supporting President Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill, more or less, opposing the reforms. The two Republican senators from Texas, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, epitomized the GOP opposition to the health-care reform. As had the senators from Maryland, Senators Hutchison and Cornyn communicated with their 25 million constituents about how they felt toward President Obama's proposed reforms. Senators Hutchison and Cornyn have deep roots in Texas and are adept at relating with fellow Texans about their attitudes and actions regarding local and national politics. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, born in Galveston, earned a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She entered politics in 1972, capturing a seat in the Texas legislature. She lost an attempt to capture a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and remained out of elected office until she won a U.S. Senate race in 1992. She has won four consecutive terms since 1992, never securing less than 61% of the statewide vote. Senator John Cornyn, born in Houston, entered the U.S. Senate in 2003 after a distinguished legal career. He served as a district judge in Bexar County, Texas, sat on the Texas Supreme Court for nearly a decade, and won a statewide election to be the attorney general of Texas in 1997.

As the Mikulski Amendment was gaining momentum in the U.S. Senate in late November and in early December of 2009, Senator Cornyn issued a series of press releases lambasting all aspects of the proposed health-care reforms. His communications included the following: "CBO Analysis Indicates Reid Bill Will Increase Family Premiums by $2,100 a Year" (11/30/09) and "Report: Texans' Premiums Would Skyrocket Under Reid Health Care Bill" (12/3/09). These messages about the proposed health-care legislation were uniformly negative, focusing on the projected costs of the legislation both nationally and for Texans, far too expensive for Senator Cornyn to support.

Senator Hutchison, on the other hand, was conflicted, at least on the subject of women's health care. In general, she could not support key elements of the reform, including the increased role of the federal government and the proposed cost of the program. However, Senator Hutchison rose to the floor of the U.S. Senate on the night of December 1, 2009, to talk about the Mikulski Amendment. She began her speech by noting her previous partnership with Senator Mikulski on women's health care, including preventative mammograms. She noted, "Senator Mikulski and I have worked together on women's health issues for a long time in this body. Two years ago, we championed the reauthorization of the national breast and cervical cancer early detection program which provides screening and diagnostic services. So, we know how important it is to address women's health care issues. And, I was in complete agreement with this new taskforce recommendation on mammograms and the need for mammograms under the age of 50." She went on to explain, however, that the Mikulski Amendment allowed the government to play a central role in medical decisions she believed were best left to women and their doctors. Two days later, both Texas senators voted against the Mikulski Amendment.

To be sure, the health-care debate raged for nearly six more months, but on May 23, 2010, President Obama announced: "Today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America. The bill I'm signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for." As expected, the votes in Congress fell essentially along party lines, with Democrats supporting the president and Republicans opposing the president. The debate over health-care reform did not end with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Indeed, an intense and often acrimonious partisan discussion focused on the legislation, pejoratively termed "Obamacare," during the 2010 federal midterm elections and health-care-reform legislation remained a key issue in the 2012 presidential election. Senators Mikulski and Cardin, across various mediums, continue to send messages to the citizens of Maryland explaining their support for the reforms, while Senators Hutchison and Cornyn steadfastly communicate to Texans their desire to repeal the legislation.

Against this backdrop of entrenched positions, however, Senator Hutchison on July 19, 2011, issued a press release supporting an increase in funding for breast-cancer research: "Feinstein, Hutchison: Majority of U.S. Senate Sponsors Breast Cancer Research Stamp Renewal." The press release read, "Legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to extend the sale of the highly successful Breast Cancer Research Stamp has the support of a majority of the United States Senate, the senators announced today. The sale of each 55-cent stamp designates 11 cents to breast cancer research. Since its introduction in 1998, more than 915 million breast cancer research stamps have been sold-raising $73 million for breast cancer research. The legislation would renew the popular Breast Cancer Research Stamp for an additional four years. Without Congressional action, the stamp will expire on December 31."

During the same week in July 2011, Senator Mikulski continued to highlight her commitment to women's preventive health care in press releases posted on her senate website. For example, on July 19, 2011, she wrote, "Mikulski Applauds Institute of Medicine's Comprehensive Recommendations for Women's Preventive Screenings And Care To Be Covered Under The Affordable Care Act." Again, on July 22, 2011, the following message was posted: "Mikulski, Senate Colleagues Urge Secretary Sebelius to Swiftly Adopt IOM's New Recommendations on Women's Preventive Health."

In contrast, Senator Cornyn and Senator Cardin were completely silent on the topic of women's health care during this same period. Instead, both senators released statements on the extended debt-ceiling debate, with Senator Cardin arguing for a "balanced approach" in a July 22, 2011, statement, while Senator Cornyn explained his views in a press release entitled "The Challenge is Not the Debt Ceiling — It's the Debt." The two senators also discussed other issues, including Senator Cardin's praise for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and Senator Cornyn's criticisms of EPA regulations.

The arc of the story following health-care reform and the communications of four U.S. senators from the fall of 2009 through the summer of 2011 reveals a puzzle at the intersection of gender and representation. Do male and female senators send different messages to citizens, even when these senators share the same party and the same constituency? Democratic senators Mikulski and Cardin have represented the exact same constituents from Maryland in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate for the better part of three decades. They are both advocates of a strong government role in health care. They both vote together on legislation focused on women's health care and on preventive care related to mammograms, specifically. Yet, on the crucial days surrounding an important amendment focused on women's health and on the renewal of legislation related to continuing breast-cancer research, they were communicating with constituents on different topics and issues altogether.

Likewise, Republican senators Hutchison and Cornyn are loyal conservatives from Texas, one of the key states forming the foundation of the GOP's power base nationwide. They know well what Texans, especially Republican Texans, want regarding health care: less government involvement, fewer government regulations, and lower costs. Senator Cornyn's messages about health reform are uniformly negative, emphasizing the costs of medical reform. Senator Hutchison's messages, in stark contrast, are more nuanced. Although she is steadfastly against the health-care reform authored by President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, Senator Hutchison felt the need to communicate and explain to her constituents why she voted against the Mikulski Amendment and why she partnered with Senator Feinstein directing federal dollars for breast-cancer research.

Senator Snowe's eloquent statement at the beginning of this chapter provides a context for understanding the content of communications sent by Senators Mikulski, Cardin, Hutchison, and Cornyn to the citizens of their states: "I have always felt the special concern and the unique responsibility to single out those issues that are so important and critical to the future of women, and to make those changes, because [women's] voices can't be heard otherwise. ..." Does the content of representational communications between senators and their constituents vary systematically with the gender of the senator, or is the story of four senators from Maryland and Texas unique? We intend to explore this question because the nature of communications flowing from representatives to citizens has implications for understanding the quality of representation in America's democracy. The U.S. Senate in the first decade of the 21st century provides a window to explore the relationship between representation and gender.

In the wake of the 2012 federal elections, the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate has reached 20, a historic high. Well over 100 million citizens are represented by a woman in one of the most important representative institutions in the world. In contrast, 25 years ago, after the 1986 midterm federal elections, only two female senators represented 6.7 million constituents, approximately 2% of the U.S. population. The face of representation changed for tens of millions of citizens in little over a quarter of a century. This is an unprecedented time in the history of U.S. representative institutions: almost half of the U.S. population looks to female senators to represent their hopes and concerns in the national government.

These dramatic changes provide an ideal moment to explore some of the more important implications and consequences of representative government. Many debates about the nature and effectiveness of representative governments focus on whether the demographic characteristics of representatives shape and color how politicians represent their constituents (see Pitkin 1967; Mansbridge 1999). We have a unique opportunity to explore whether a U.S. senator's gender influences the representational relationship between senators and citizens.


Excerpted from The Changing Face of Representation by Kim L. Fridkin, Patrick J. Kenney. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Chapter 1 The Senator's Gender and Representational Messages 1

Chapter 2 Measuring the Content and Impact of Representational Messages 29

Chapter 3 The Websites of Senators and Presentation of Self 43

Chapter 4 How the Senator's Gender Influences the Content of Press Releases 63

Chapter 5 Coverage of Senators in the Local Press 81

Chapter 6 Citizens' Understanding of Their U.S. Senators 109

Chapter 7 The Impact of the Senator's Gender during Reelection Campaigns 132

Chapter 8 The Changing Face of the U.S. Senate and Representational Messages 157

Appendixes 171

Notes 207

References 223

Index 241

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