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In April, Virginia passed a bill that aims to eliminate power plant carbon pollution by 2050, turning it from an environmental laggard to one of the most ambitious states in the country. State Senator Jennifer McClellan of Richmond led passage of the historic legislation.

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act will move Virginia from the back of the pack to become a leader on clean energy,” she said.

The bill was just one of many environmental laws that the state’s new conservation majority passed this year. 2019 was a milestone for another reason too—never before had Virginia elected so many women to office. At 26.4% representation, it now has a higher proportion of women leaders than Congress.

Are women more likely to support and champion environmental legislation like the Clean Economy Act? Rachel’s Network, an association of women environmental funders, has been seeking answers to that question in our When Women Lead report.

Previous iterations of When Women Lead analyzed the voting records of federal legislators going back to 1983 using League of Conservation Voters (LCV) Environmental Scorecard data. The Scorecard is the nationally accepted yardstick used to rate members of Congress on environmental, public health, and energy issues.

This year, we’ve extended our data to 1972, the year that LCV first began keeping records of Congress’ votes on the environment.

Once again, we found that women in Congress vote for legislation supporting clean air, clean water, renewable energy, climate action, and public health much more often than their male counterparts (and similarly vote more often against legislation that would roll back these protections).

Below are graphs that illustrate why women’s leadership is good for the environment.

US House of Representatives

In the US House of Representatives, women have had higher average environmental scores in every year that LCV has kept records. Women’s average score from 1972-2019 is 61.8 while men’s is 45.4.

Within each political party, this pattern persists, although the discrepancy is less pronounced. The average scores of Democratic women surpass those of Democratic men in nearly every year since 1972 and their average is much higher: 86.5 vs 69.2. Since 2003, the scores of Republican women in the house have roughly tracked Republican men’s scores, but their overall average since 1972 is 24.8 compared to men’s 19.8.

US Senate

Just as in the House of Representatives, women’s average LCV score in the Senate since 1972 is higher than men’s overall (67.6 vs 45.4) and within each party (D: 84.8 vs 69.4; R: 31.2 vs 20). Year by year, the picture is more complicated, primarily because comparatively few women have served in the Senate. From 1973-1977, no women served at all, and until 1991, only 1 or 2 women served at any one time. The large swings in LCV scores are partly due to this small sample size.

When Women Lead isn’t the only study that has found that gender matters in environmental legislation. Research in several academic journals, including the European Journal of Political Economy, the Review of Policy Research, and the Journal of Environmental Politics found that more female representation in national and supranational legislatures leads to more stringent climate change and environmental policies.

US state legislatures provide a useful subject for further research given the differing proportions of women serving, from Mississippi’s paltry 13.8 percent, to Nevada’s 52.4 percent. Are states with more women legislators more likely to support and pass environmental policies? Based on the research so far, it is fair to assume the answer is yes.

Party affiliation remains the most salient indicator of support for environmental legislation in Congress, and that partisan divide has only gotten starker over time. Although women vote for the environment more than men on average, even within their own parties, the scores of both Republican women and men have dropped over time, and those of Democratic men and women have risen.

This partisan divide exists against the backdrop of stagnant representation of women within the Republican Party. Nearly all the gains in women’s representation in Congress since 1995 have happened in the Democratic party. In 2014, Rachel’s Network partnered with Political Parity to identify the reasons for this disparity.

Climate change, pollution, food and energy insecurity, chemical safety, and biodiversity loss have become urgent global concerns that threaten lives and livelihoods in the US. If we want to make progress on protecting the environment and public health, we should help elect more women to public office, and support them during their tenure. To learn more about efforts to do just that, visit the When Women Lead website and Rachel’s Action Network.

Photo: Jennifer McClellan

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