Nevertheless, both male and female villagers declared themselves less satisfied with women leaders. The scholars conducting the study were puzzled by this: Services appeared to be superior, yet dissatisfaction was greater. It wasn't just male chauvinists who were upset; women villagers were also more dissatisfied. It seemed that ordinary citizens were discomfited by women leaders forced upon them, or resented the fact that the women leaders were less educated and experienced on average than male leaders. This does suggest that women politicians, at least in India, face a hurdle: Even if they do better than men at providing services, they initially are judged more harshly.
Follow-up research did find that after a village had once had a female leader, this bias against women chiefs disappeared. Women leaders were then judged by gender-neutral standards. Such research suggests that quotas for local female leaders may be worthwhile, because they overcome the initial hurdle that blocks women candidates. An Indian-style quota of women officeholders seems to break down gender barriers so that afterward the political system becomes more democratic and open.
Whatever the impact of women as leaders, we have some direct evidence from America's own history of the broad consequences of female political participation. As we noted earlier, maternal mortality in the United States declined significantly only once women gained the right to vote: When women had a political voice, their lives also became a higher priority. In addition, there is strong evidence that when women gained the vote, the political system responded by allocating more funds to public health programs, particularly for child health, because this was an issue that women voters were perceived as caring about strongly. Grant Miller, a scholar at Stanford University, has conducted a brilliant study of the health response when, state by state, women obtained the right to vote. He found that when women gained the vote, the politicians in that state scrambled to win favor from women voters by allocating more funds to child health care; this did not happen in states where women remained unable to vote. "Within a year of suffrage law enactment, patterns of legislative roll call voting shifted, and local public health spending rose by roughly 35 percent," Professor Miller wrote. "Child mortality declined by 8–15 percent with the enactment of suffrage laws. … Nationwide, these reductions translate into roughly 20,000 averted child deaths each year."
The same thing happened at a national level. A year after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women all across the country the right to vote in 1920, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, a landmark program for public health. The "principal force moving Congress was fear of being punished at the polls" by the new women voters, one historian wrote. The improvement in America's health during this period was stunning: The mortality rate for children aged one to four plummeted 72 percent between 1900 and 1930, although there are many other reasons for this decline as well, of course. As Professor Miller notes, opponents of women's political participation have often made the argument that if women get involved in outside activities, then children will suffer. In fact, the evidence from our own history is that women's political participation has proved to be of vast, life-saving benefit to America's children.
Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.