This Independent Study explores how women’s increased presence in presidential primary debates impacts the extent to which women’s issues are discussed in the debates. Prior research on political representation and critical mass theory indicates that women politicians can turn their identity as women (descriptive representation) into action that benefits their women constituents (substantive representation) by adding women’s voices and lived experiences into the political conversation. I capitalize on the 2020 election being the first where multiple women presidential candidates ran against each other, allowing me to see whether the increase in the number of women participating in the Democratic primary debates also led to women’s issues being better represented on the debate stage. I hypothesize that women’s issues, especially manifest women’s issues like abortion and childcare that are the most salient to women, will be more prevalent in debates when there are more women on stage, that women candidates’ presence will result in men candidates talking about women’s issues more often, and that women moderators will discuss manifest women’s issues more than men moderators. Using a content analysis method on Democratic primary debate transcripts from 2000-2020, I find partial support for my hypotheses. Women’s issues do not increase when there are more women on stage overall, but manifest women’s issues in particular do increase, in some cases over 150%. Additionally, I find that women moderators’ questions include three times more words related to manifest women’s issues than men moderators. These results show that it matters that women candidates and women moderators are present on the debate stage. Women and women’s issues are better represented when more women are present in debates, demonstrating that women can turn their presence into substantive representation.


Bos, Angie


Political Science


American Politics | Political Science


Women and Politics, Representation, Presidential Debates, Presidential Candidates, Politics, Critical Mass, Women's Issues, Gender and Politics

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis Exemplar


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