Women’s suffrage constitutes a major achievement for women’s political emancipation and for the most part completes the process of women’s incorporation into politics de jure. However, women’s de facto incorporation into politics continues to be an ongoing process in virtually every country in the world. On the one hand, suffragists looked to suffrage as a means to women’s group representation and the link between suffrage and group representation forms a cornerstone of dominant theories of democratization. On the other hand, newly enfranchised women continued facing cultural, structural and institutional barriers to voting that hindered women’s de facto incorporation in politics and therefore also women’s ability to take advantage of the newly gained rights. This is problematic because politicians may not fully represent women if women are less likely to vote.
In a recent working paper, I systematically analyse unique election data collected separately for women and men after women’s suffrage in Norway, Sweden, Austria and New Zealand. This data allows me to investigate the conditions under which women’s turnout reached parity with men’s turnout after women’s de jure incorporation into politics, which ultimately bears positive implications for women’s group representation.
Closely examining this unique data, I advance an argument that whilst de facto barriers to voting faced by newly enfranchised women were responsible for women’s weaker turnout than men’s after suffrage, women’s propensity to vote approached parity with men’s when general incentives to vote were high, especially when electoral context was most favourable.
Did proportional electoral systems facilitate mobilization of women after suffrage?
Classic scholarship perceives proportional electoral systems (PR) as more conducive to political participation, party mobilization and representation of undermobilized groups than majoritarian systems, and recent evidence suggests that this is also the case for women.[i] However, the type of an electoral system at the national level does not comprehensively explain the cross-country variation in women’s turnout at the turn of the twentieth century. Thanks to the election data collected separately by sex in majority of countries that enfranchised women at the turn of the twentieth century, we know that the gender turnout gap was sometimes narrower in countries with single member districts (SMDs) than in countries with proportional systems (PR) and varied greatly within both types of electoral systems. Rather than being determined by an electoral system, women’s turnout appeared to vary with men’s turnout, approaching parity with men’s in countries where men’s turnout was very high (see Figure 1 below).
Electoral competition within systems, not electoral systems, facilitates mobilization
Closely re-examining patterns of women’s and men’s turnout across localities after women’s suffrage, I offer an explanation for why the gender turnout gap narrowed when men’s mobilization was also high, and why the gender turnout gap did not appear to be directly related to type of an electoral system.
I argue that to the extent that women face greater de facto barriers to voting than men, we should expect that the difference between women’s and men’s turnout narrows when the incentives to vote and to mobilize in the generalpopulation are very strong. This is because under the most favorable circumstances, even voters who face the greatest barriers to voting vote. Another way of thinking about this is that even if women are less likely to vote and be mobilized than men on average, they may be incentivized to vote or be mobilized by parties when most men have already made their decision to vote or have already been mobilized. This explains why women’s turnout approaches men’s in countries where men’s turnout is also high. It has little to do with men as such, but reflects greater mobilization and voting incentives among the general population.
Building on these insights, I then argue that if we are to understand the cross-national variation in the gender turnout gap, we have to unpack the conditions under which turnout and mobilization is incentivized at the local level within electoral systems. While electoral systems affect the gender turnout gap on the whole, the extent to which each system narrows the gender turnout gap depends on electoral competition within that system.
How district competition affects the gender turnout gap
I theorize and empirically show that the gender turnout gap narrows with district electoral competition. As district electoral competition incentivizes voting and mobilization in general, it also narrows the gender turnout gap. This is especially in systems with single member districts, where competition typically varies across districts.
It follows that if most single-member districts are highly competitive, gender turnout gap may be quite narrow even in systems with SMDs. This can explain the relatively successful mobilization of women in New Zealand, despite using single member district to elect their representatives. At the time of women’s suffrage, concurrent district-level referenda were held in each electoral district on how may new alcohol licences will be awarded or taken away in a district. Even in districts where incumbents enjoyed substantial advantage over challengers, a lot remained at stake with respect to alcohol licences. This resulted in high levels of electoral competition across all districts, and therefore a narrower gender turnout gap at the national level.
How within-district competition affects gender turnout gap
I theorize and empirically show that the gender turnout gap narrows with within-district electoral competition, measured as electoral concentration. As within-district electoral concentration strengthens the incentives to vote and to mobilize in the general population, it also narrows the gender turnout gap. This is especially in countries with proportional system, where linkages between parties and social groups are typically high and therefore foster the incentives to mobilize and to vote in party strongholds.
It follows that women’s turnout in proportional systems may be conditional on parties forming strong ties with social groups or having strongholds. This can explain the relatively successful mobilization of women in Austria, which, when it came to women’s mobilization after suffrage, outperformed all other countries with proportional systems. At the time of women’s suffrage, parties in Austria enjoyed a highly geographically concentrated support, each mostly relying on mobilization of their own, geographically concentrated electorate, whether than be defined by religion or by class. Importantly, parties could rely on those votes from year to year during this time period, with each social `pillar’ remaining loyal to their party. This resulted in high levels of electoral concentration and therefore a narrower gender turnout gap at the national level.
Implications for women’s representation and beyond
Perhaps the most important implication of this research is for our understanding of how newly enfranchised women secured representation of their interests after suffrage. If politicians’ electoral interests in women reflect their propensity to vote, we would expect that the extent to which politicians represent newly enfranchised women depends on the proportion of competitive districts. This may help to explain not only why women’s turnout was especially low in the uncompetitive U.S. South upon women’s enfranchisement, but also why Southern politicians were less likely to endorse women’s legislation. Similarly, we would expect that the extent to which parties represent women depends on the proportion of strongholds. This may help to explain why new parties, such as the Socialists at the time of women’s suffrage, may have been less successful in capturing the new women vote than the more locally established Liberal and Conservative parties.
This research also has important implications for the study of how inclusive institutions affect gender turnout gap, such as direct democracy, compulsory voting and registration laws. While inclusive institutions not specifically implemented to increase women’s participation in politics have been shown to narrow gender turnout gap, this paper suggests that any such effects may be down to the inclusivity of the institution itself that provides more favorable context to general voting propensity, rather than due to a direct effect on women’s turnout. For example, Córdova and Rangel find that the effect of compulsory voting on gender turnout gap may not reflect women’s opportunity to cast an informed vote, but an opportunity to do so in the population, which affects underrepresented groups in the electorate more than others. In that case, the size of the impact that an inclusive institution has on the gender turnout gap may be determined by its ability to spur propensity to vote in the general population, rather than by its ability to increase propensity to vote among women.
[i] For classic scholarship, see for example Lijphart, Arend. 1994. “Democracies: Forms, Performance, and Constitutional Engineering.” European Journal of Political Research, 25(1), 1-17; Powell, G. Bingham. 1986. “American Voter Turnout in Comparative Perspective.” APSR: 17-43; For recent scholarship on women, see Kittilson, Miki Caul, and Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer. 2012. The Gendered Effects of Electoral Institutions: Political Engagement and Participation. Oxford UP; Skorge, Oyvind. 2021. “Mobilizing the Underrepresented: Electoral Institutions and Gender Inequality in Political Participation.” AJPS.