Women take center stage at political science conference

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Women are taking ballots by storm across local, state and national elections. What’s motivating them to run? How will they fare in November? What kind of legislators will they be?

Those were just a few of the questions on the table at the American Political Science Association State Politics and Policy Conference, hosted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy June 7-9 at Penn State University Park. The conference brought together more than 100 political science scholars from around the U.S. to discuss issues surrounding state politics.

The event’s focal point was a standing-room-only discussion on empowering women in state politics moderated by College of the Liberal Arts Dean Susan Welch, who has studied women in state politics for more than 30 years. 

“I was impressed at the new directions showcased in the panel,” Welch said. “The papers featured interesting methodological innovations designed to help us understand how states emulate their neighboring states' policy innovations and how groups supporting women's candidacies are making an impact on the election of women to legislative and other offices.”  

One of those new directions came from Erin Heidt-Forsythe, who presented her research on reproductive rights and Republican female legislators. Heidt-Forsythe is the Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute, assistant professor of political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and the author of “Between Families and Frankenstein: The Politics of Egg Donation in the United States.”

Heidt-Forsythe argues that egg donation is a microcosm of how female legislators introduce and act upon legislation concerning women’s issues like family leave and reproductive rights. Actions vary state to state and party to party, and she said it’s important to look at the whole picture to understand the role that women play in state politics.

“Republican women are advocating for these issues in ways that we might not have expected and might not have seen by just looking at Democratic women,” she said. “We can use these test cases to test to gain a perspective on what gender can tell us about politics more broadly.”

McCourtney Institute Director Michael Berkman said the decision to feature women in politics at the conference was a natural one given the current political landscape and the strength of the research being done by Heidt-Forsythe and other female political science scholars across the U.S.

“One of the great values of state politics research is that states are laboratories of democracy,” Berkman said. “This phrase has many meanings, but one of importance to state politics scholars is that we can compare across states and learn about democracy operates differently under different circumstances, for example in states with many women in their legislatures and states with few."

The State Politics and Policy Conference also served as an introduction to the new Master of Public Policy program in the College of the Liberal Arts, and an opportunity to showcase the research and outreach conducted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

“I thought the conference was a big success, with a great turnout, interesting ideas, a wonderful poster session featuring graduate student research, including some of our own students, and a chance to showcase the great work being done by the McCourtney Institute and the new policy program that we are going to roll out next year,” Welch said. 

Last Updated June 14, 2018