Congressmen Shape Laws to Favor Their Daughters

How our children’s genders change our priorities

Posted Jan 16, 2016

Ornham Cam/Shutterstock
Source: Ornham Cam/Shutterstock

When getting to know candidates running for office, we’re always eager to learn details about their personal lives, partly because we feel certain characteristics are relevant to how they’ll govern when elected.

While some details seem important—like whether someone has any children—others seem irrelevant, like whether their children are sons or daughters.

But in fact, some research shows that their children’s gender influences the legislative behavior of Congress members in office. Specifically, Congress members with more daughters vote more liberally, particularly on laws relevant to reproductive rights, such as those that favor greater access to birth control. They found, for example, that parents with 3 daughters and no sons voted twice as liberally as parents with 3 sons and no daughters.

One detail of these results was especially revealing: Number of daughters only affected the voting of fathers (male Congress members) but not mothers (females Congress members). This finding makes intuitive sense. Women would have already spent their lives thinking about gender-relevant issues from a female viewpoint (obviously), and solidified their views on these issues early on, regardless of their children’s gender.

But most men would not have been as deeply invested in women’s issues while growing up, nor thought about them as carefully, so these views should be more abstract and more susceptible to change. Fathering a daughter would instantly make women’s issues more personally relevant to them, as they envision the prospects and challenges their children are likely to face in their lives—a powerful motivating force to support policies that benefit women.

In addition to more favorable voting on reproductive rights policies, having more daughters also predicted more liberal voting on other issues, like greater support for flexibility of working families, labor unions, tax-free education, health care, and other government services.

This “liberal shift” after having daughters is consistent with the more general tendency of women to be more politically liberal than men, a phenomenon that has been explained in economic terms. Because women on average earn less money than men and bear more of the financial burden of pregnancy and child care, women derive a greater net benefit from publicly-funded programs (e.g., education, health care), particularly when they need to rely on these programs more than men.

When men have daughters, it makes sense that they shift their political views to become more supportive toward female interests. And this phenomenon is by no means limited to Congress members: In the larger populace, parents with daughters have stronger pro-feminist views and more liberal values than parents with sons, while parents having both sons and daughters fall somewhere in between.

The fact that it happens among a nation’s lawmakers shows that the effect of daughters can influence policy on a massive scale.

It’s also interesting to consider how this process operates in someone who has even greater power than those in Congress: American presidents, since the early 1990s, have only had daughters. Could a president’s daughters also be a significant source of influence that trickle down to affect the values and policies within the larger culture?