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Analysing Women's Substantive Representation: From Critical Mass to Critical Actors

  • Sarah Childs and Mona Lena Krook


This article makes a case for rethinking traditional approaches to the study of legislative behaviour on behalf of women by asking (1) not when women make a difference, but how the substantive representation of women occurs; and (2) not what ‘women’ do, but what specific actors do. The first shift aims to explore the contexts, identities and attitudes that motivate and inform substantive representation. The second seeks to move beyond a focus on female legislators to identify the ‘critical actors’, male and female, who may attempt to represent women as a group. In so doing, this framework calls attention to how structure and agency interact in the substantive representation of women.



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2 Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel, The Concept of Representation, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.

3 Mansbridge, Jane, ‘Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”’, Journal of Politics, 61: 3 (1999), pp. 628–57; Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity, and Race, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

4 The current world average for the lower house of parliament is 18.1 per cent women. The national parliaments with the highest numbers of women are Rwanda with 48.8 per cent women and Sweden with 47.3 per cent women. See and, accessed 31 July 2008.

5 Childs, Sarah and Krook, Mona Lena, ‘Should Feminists Give Up on Critical Mass? A Contingent Yes’, Politics & Gender, 2: 4 (2006), pp. 522–30.

6 Beckwith, Karen, ‘Numbers and Newness: The Descriptive and Substantive Representation of Women’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 40: 1 (2007), pp. 2749;

7 Importantly, this template only addresses the substantive representation of women in relation to elected political bodies. We recognize, however, that substantive representation may also occur in other sites, such as women's movements and women's policy agencies. See Celis, Karen, Childs, Sarah, Kantola, Johanna and Krook, Mona Lena, ‘Rethinking Women's Substantive Representation’, Representation, 44: 2 (2008), pp. 99110;

8 Kanter, Rosabeth Moss, ‘Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life’, American Journal of Sociology, 82: 5 (1977), pp. 965–90; Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation, New York, Basic Books, 1977.

9 Dahlerup, Drude, ‘From a Small to a Large Minority: Women in Scandinavian Politics’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 11: 4 (1988), pp. 275–97.

10 Childs, Sarah and Krook, Mona Lena, ‘Critical Mass Theory and Women's Political Representation’, Political Studies, 56: 3 (2008), pp. 725–36.

11 See Franceschet, Susan and Piscopo, Jennifer M., ‘Gender Quotas and Women's Substantive Representation: Lessons from Argentina’, Politics & Gender, 4: 3 (2008), pp. 393425.

12 Saint-Germain, Michelle, ‘Does Their Difference Make a Difference? The Impact of Women on Public Policy in the Arizona Legislature’, Social Science Quarterly, 70: 4 (1989), pp. 956–68; Sue Thomas, How Women Legislate, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

13 Bratton, Kathleen A., ‘Critical Mass Theory Revisited: The Behavior and Success of Token Women in State Legislatures’, Politics & Gender, 1: 1 (2005), pp. 97125;

14 Hawkesworth, Mary, ‘Congressional Enactments of Race-Gender: Toward a Theory of Raced-Gendered Institutions’, American Political Science Review, 97: 4 (2003), pp. 529–50.

15 Crowley, Jocelyn Elise, ‘When Tokens Matter’, Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29: 1 (2004), pp. 109–36.

16 Susan J. Carroll (ed.), The Impact of Women in Public Office, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001; Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie A., ‘Still Supermadres? Gender and the Policy Priorities of Latin American Legislators’, American Journal of Political Science, 50: 3 (2006), pp. 570–85.

17 Hawkesworth, ‘Congressional Enactments’; Lyn Kathlene, ‘Position Power versus Gender Power: Who Holds the Floor?’, in Georgia Duerst-Lahti and Rita Mae Kelly (eds), Gender Power, Leadership, and Governance, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 167–94.

18 Carroll, Impact of Women.

19 Heath, Roseanna Michelle, Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie A. and Taylor-Robinson, Michelle M., ‘Women on the Sidelines: Women's Representation on Committees in Latin American Legislatures’, American Journal of Political Science, 49: 2 (2005), pp. 420–36; Noelle Norton, ‘Women, It's Not Enough to Be Elected: Committee Position Makes a Difference’, in Duerst-Lahti and Kelly, Gender Power, pp. 115–40.

20 Duerst-Lahti and Kelly, Gender Power.

21 Chaney, Paul, ‘Critical Mass, Deliberation, and the Substantive Representation of Women: Evidence from the UK's Devolution Programme’, Political Studies, 54: 4 (2006), pp. 691714.

22 Cowley, Philip and Childs, Sarah, ‘Too Spineless to Rebel? New Labour's Women MPs’, British Journal of Political Science, 33: 3 (2003), pp. 345–65; Lise Gotell and Janine Brodie, ‘Women and Parties: More Than an Issue of Numbers’, in Hugh G. Thorburn (ed.), Party Politics in Canada, Scarborough, Prentice-Hall Canada, 1991, pp. 53–67.

23 Reingold, Beth, Representing Women, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000 ; Swers, Michelle L., The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002.

24 Thomas, How Women Legislate; Weldon, ‘Beyond Bodies’.

25 Erickson, Lynda, ‘Might More Women Make a Difference?’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 30: 4 (1997), pp. 663–88;

26 Mansbridge, ‘Should Blacks Represent Blacks’; Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

27 Lovenduski, Joni and Norris, Pippa, ‘Westminister Women: The Politics of Presence’, Political Studies, 51: 1 (2003), pp. 84102;

28 Debra Dodson and Sue Carroll, Reshaping the Agenda: Women in State Legislatures, New Brunswick, NJ, Center for American Women and Politics, 1991; Swers, Difference Women Make.

29 Carroll, Impact of Women.

30 Squires, Judith, ‘The Constitutive Representation of Gender: Extra-Parliamentary Re-Presentations of Gender Relations’, Representation, 44: 2 (2008), pp. 198204;

31 Sarah Childs, New Labour's Women MPs: Women Representing Women, New York, Routledge, 2004; Reingold, Representing Women.

32 Cowell-Meyers, Kimberly, ‘Gender, Power, and Peace: A Preliminary Look at Women in the Northern Ireland Assembly’, Women & Politics, 23: 3 (2001), pp. 5588.

33 Skjeie, Hege, ‘Quotas, Parity, and the Discursive Dangers of Difference’, in Klausen, Jytte and Maier, Charles S. (eds), Has Liberalism Failed Women? Assuring Equal Representation in Europe and the United States, New York, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 165–76.

34 Dodson and Carroll, Reshaping the Agenda; Schwindt-Bayer, ‘Still Supermadres’.

35 Bratton, ‘Critical Mass Theory Revisited’; Reingold, Representing Women.

36 Chaney, ‘Critical Mass’; Tremblay, Manon and Pelletier, Réjean, ‘More Feminists or More Women? Descriptive and Substantive Representation of Women in the 1997 Canadian Federal Elections’, International Political Science Review, 21: 4 (2000), pp. 381405.

37 Hawkesworth, ‘Congressional Enactments’; Cindy Simon Rosenthal, When Women Lead, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

38 Bratton, ‘Critical Mass Theory Revisited’; Wängnerud, ‘Testing the Politics of Presence’.

39 Meyer, Birgit, ‘Much Ado about Nothing? Political Representation Policies and the Influence of Women Parliamentarians in Germany’, Review of Policy Research, 20: 3 (2003), pp. 401–21.

40 Schwindt-Bayer, ‘Still Supermadres’.

41 Dolan, Kathleen and Ford, Lynne E., ‘Women in State Legislatures: Feminist Identity and Legislative Behaviours’, American Politics Quarterly, 23 (1995), pp. 96108.

42 Dodson and Carroll, Reshaping the Agenda; Reingold, Representing Women.

43 Swers, The Difference Women Make.

44 Celis, Karen, ‘Substantive Representation of Women: The Representation of Women's Interests and the Impact of Descriptive Representation in the Belgian Parliament (1900–1979)’, Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy, 28: 2 (2006), pp. 85114.

45 Weldon, ‘Beyond Bodies’.

46 Saward, Michael, ‘The Representative Claim’, Contemporary Political Theory, 5: 3 (2006), pp. 297318; Squires, ‘Constitutive Representation’.

47 Sarah Childs, Women and British Party Politics: Descriptive, Substantive, and Symbolic Representation, London, Routledge, 2008; Michele L. Swers, ‘Legislative Entrepreneurship and Women's Issues: An Analysis of Members' Bill Sponsorship and Cosponsorship Agendas’, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, 15–18 April 2004.

48 Karin L. Tamerius, ‘Sex, Gender, and Leadership in the Representation of Women’, in Duerst-Lahti and Kelly, Gender Power, pp. 83–112.

49 Norton, Noelle H., ‘Analysing Roll-Call Voting Tools for Content: Are Women's Issues Excluded from Legislative Research’, Women and Politics, 17: 4 (1997), pp. 4769.

50 Carroll, Impact of Women; Swers, The Difference Women Make.

51 Childs, Sarah and Withey, Julie, ‘The Substantive Representation of Women: The Case of the Reduction of VAT on Sanitary Products’, Parliamentary Affairs, 59: 1 (2006), pp. 1023.

52 Bratton, Kathleen A. and Ray, Leonard P., ‘Descriptive Representation, Policy Outcomes, and Municipal Day-Care Coverage in Norway’, American Journal of Political Science, 46: 2 (2002), pp. 428–37.

53 High-Pippert, Angela and Comer, John, ‘Female Empowerment: The Influence of Women Representing Women’, Women and Politics, 19: 4 (1998), pp. 5366.

54 Yoder, Janice D., ‘Rethinking Tokenism: Looking Beyond Numbers’, Gender and Society, 5: 2 (1991), pp. 178–92.

55 Fairhurst, Gail Theus and Snavely, B. Kay, ‘Majority and Token Minority Group Relationships: Power Acquisition and Communication’, Academy of Management Review, 8: 2 (1983), pp. 292300.

56 Granovetter, Mark, ‘Threshold Models and Collective Behavior’, American Journal of Sociology, 83: 6 (1978), pp. 1420–43; Thomas C. Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1974.

57 Granovetter, ‘Threshold Models’.

58 Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1965.

59 Gerald Marwell and Pamela Oliver, The Critical Mass in Collective Action: A Micro-Social Theory, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993; Oliver, Pamela and Marwell, Gerald, ‘A Theory of Critical Mass. I. Interdependence, Group Heterogeneity, and the Production of Collective Action’, American Journal of Sociology, 91: 3 (1988), pp. 522–56.

60 Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior.

61 Mintrom, Michael, ‘Policy Entrepreneurs and the Diffusion of Innovation’, American Journal of Political Science, 41: 3 (1997), pp. 738–70; Gregory Wawro, Legislative Entrepreneurship in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2000.

62 Kanter, ‘Some Effects of Proportions’, p. 966.

63 Ibid.

64 Ibid., p. 987.

65 Kanter, Men and Women, p. 238.

66 Dahlerup, ‘From a Small to a Large Minority’, pp. 276–8.

67 Ibid., p. 296.

68 Ibid., emphasis in original.

69 Celis, ‘Substantive Representation’; Tamerius, ‘Sex, Gender, and Leadership’.

70 Childs and Withey, ‘Substantive Representation’; see also Chaney, ‘Critical Mass’; Reingold, Representing Women.

71 See Yoder, ‘Rethinking Tokenism’.

72 Reingold, Representing Women; Thomas, How Women Legislate.

73 Crowley, ‘When Tokens Matter’.

74 See Childs and Withey, ‘Substantive Representation’.

75 Ibid.

76 Maud Eduards, ‘Sweden’, in Joni Lovenduski and Jill Hills (eds), The Politics of the Second Electorate: Women and Public Participation, Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 208–27.

77 Gunnel Karlsson, Från broderskap till systerskap: Det socialdemokratiska kvinnförbundets kamp för inflytande och makt i SAP, Lund, Arkiv förlag, 1996; Gunnel Karlsson, ‘Social Democratic Women's Coup in the Swedish Parliament’, in Drude von der Fehr, Bente Rosenbeck and Anna G. Jonasdottir (eds), Is There a Nordic Feminism? Nordic Feminist Thought on Culture and Society, London, UCL Press, 1998, pp. 44–68.

79, accessed 31 July 2008.

80, accessed 31 July 2008.

81 Dahlerup, Drude, ‘The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass’, Politics & Gender, 2: 4 (2006), pp. 511–22; Mona Lena Krook, Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.

1 This paper is fully co-authored and was conceived and initially written while Mona Lena Krook was an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Bristol, 2004–5. Earlier versions were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, 1–4 September 2005; the Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Reading, Reading, 3–6 April 2006; and the Midwest Political Science Association National Conference, Chicago, 20–23 April 2006. We would like to thank Karen Beckwith, Drude Dahlerup, Judith Squires, Cindy Simon Rosenthal, Brian Crisp and the editors and anonymous reviewers at Government and Opposition for their helpful comments.

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Analysing Women's Substantive Representation: From Critical Mass to Critical Actors

  • Sarah Childs and Mona Lena Krook


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