Why Women Mobilize: 
Dissecting and Dismantling India’s Political Gender Gap

Ghoda Dongri block of Madhya Pradesh exemplifies women’s political behavior in many parts of India. Only 9% of women have ever contacted their local leader and an even fewer - 3% - have made a claim on that leader. Most women remain uninformed about their rights as citizens and as a result believe politics to be the man’s space. Women rarely run for election except when the seat is reserved for a woman, and even then many female leaders act as façade for the real political leader, their husbands. However, in neighboring Kesla block women have become a political force to be reckoned with. In the most recent local elections in spring of 2015, 22 of 28 elected positions were won by women, despite only one third of these seats being reserved for women. The women of Kesla have submitted over 1,900 applications for government services to Panchayat (local) and Janpad (block) officials and have succeeded in over 70% of these applications. Women not only attend Gram Sabha (local council) meetings but are active, coordinated, and engaged participants, often relegating their male counterparts to the back of the room and leveraging their strength as a collective group of women. Further, Kesla looks the same as Ghoda Dongri in terms of demographic or economic indicators. Yet, politically Kesla looks strikingly different.

In India, as in many democracies, there persists a striking gender gap in political participation and representation. This political gender gap persists despite decades of democracy and universal adult suffrage, rapid economic development, and large-scale policies aimed at women's political empowerment. Women's political participation is important not only on normative grounds of inclusion, but because we know that when women do participate, politics changes. Why does this gender gap in political participation persist and how do women become active political participants? When does gender become a unifying and politically salient identity? In short, when and why do women politically mobilize? 

In this book project, I develop a theoretical model of political behavior which sustains a gender-gap political equilibrium: an equilibrium where men show up, speak up, and are represented in political institutions, but where women remain less present in political spaces and decision-making. I draw on theories of social networks and identity politics and argue that women's lack of political participation is the result of coordinated political behavior in the household. Women are constrained by limited social networks, stemming from the household division of labor, gender norms, and limited mobility, and, thus, coordinate their political behavior with the household to maximize political gains. Household bargaining dynamics, however, dictate that men act as the political agent of the household and thus participate in politics. I suggest that this political system is not only marked by a gender gap in political participation, but also patronage political networks and under-provision of public goods. I then argue that when women's social networks shift in such a way as to include more women, often because of female-targeted social policies, gender as an identity can become politically salient and women's political participation increases. This holds even when resource allocations, social norms, and household dynamics would suggest otherwise. I further document how women's political inclusion can yield improved local governance and greater provision of public goods.

I first empirically evaluate both the gender-gap equilibrium and how the expansion of social networks alter this equilibrium, using original survey data from 7,700 women and men from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. I first descriptively document the gender-gap equilibrium and demonstrate that the household is the unit of political coordination. I show that while individual resources, namely education, correlate with political participation, they are offset by the resources of spouses. As husbands' education increases, wives are shown to be less likely to participate in politics.

I then evaluate the importance of social networks for women's political empowerment by leveraging a natural experiment which created as-if random variation in exposure to an NGO program aimed at mobilizing women into small credit collectives. I demonstrate that women who participated in this network intervention were significantly more active in local politics - women's attendance at local public meetings is estimated to double. Yet many of these women's groups remained inactive in politics. I show that an additional gender-oriented civics education program delivered within women's social networks further increases women's political participation. I provide evidence of three possible mechanisms underlying both the network and civics education effects: (1) political coordination within the network, (2) information transfers, and (3) the development of civic skills.

These arguments and findings bring together the importance of social coordination for individual and collective political participation and the intersectionality of identities to create an integrated explanation of the gender gap in political participation. In doing so, this book project starts to shed light on how systems of behavior fit into broader stories of governance and development and highlights the particular role of women's inclusion.