In Northeastern India, Lineage Norms Predict Gender Gap in Political Engagement and Policy Preferences

By Emanne Khan

It is a well-established fact that women are underrepresented in global politics, and recent data from the United Nations demonstrates this underrepresentation spans all levels of government. Worldwide, women serve as heads of state or government in only 22 countries, and make up a mere 21 percent of government ministers; 25 percent of national parliamentarians; and 36 percent of members in local deliberative bodies.

Not only do women occupy fewer seats of political influence than men, but the kinds of economic policies they support also differ from their male counterparts. Examining the relationship between gender and legislative priorities in sub-Saharan Africa, Clayton et al. found in 2019 that women are more likely than men to favor policies aimed at bolstering social security and reducing poverty. 

As the world’s largest democracy, India presents a fascinating backdrop against which to examine differences in men’s and women’s political engagement and policy preferences. In a new article published in the Journal of Politics, Human Capital Initiative Core Faculty Member Rachel Brulé and coauthor Nikhar Gaikwad of Columbia University investigated the driving factors behind the so-called “political economy gender gap” in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. Within the tribes of Meghalaya, they found that lineage traditions—specifically, whether ancestral wealth is transmitted through male or female relatives—are “key determinants” of gendered differences in political engagement and economic policy preferences.

According to Brulé and Gaikwad, most scholarly attempts to analyze the political economy gender gap take one of two approaches, noting that “One side argues that patriarchal cultural norms dampen women’s political participation and promote their support for a larger, more caring welfare state,” and the other side focuses on material resources. Scholars taking this approach advocate that in many societies, men’s greater access to wealth, in the form of “assets, property and income,” incentivizes them to “invest [more] in political participation, particularly to limit taxation and redistribution.”

This binary approach “misses a central point,” Brulé and Gaikwad argue. Culture and material resources are inextricably linked. Lineage norms, which are inherently cultural, influence who in a particular society has access to material wealth. 

Matrilineal customs

In Meghalaya, matrilineal tribes, which transmit familial wealth between female relatives, make up 91 percent of the large tribal population, with patrilineal tribes comprising the remaining nine percent.

Within matrilineal tribes, Brulé and Gaikwad note that “the most important unit is the immediate family, organized around the mother (iing).” The iing’s property passes onto her daughters, but male relatives also have an important role to play in the management of resources and household decision-making. 

In fact, Brulé and Gaikwad noted that “the equality of decision-making power that results in Meghalaya’s matrilineal groups cannot be overstated.” Brothers, sisters, husbands and wives all cooperate in handling familial affairs. The result is a cultural dynamic that privileges women’s inheritance rights, but emphasizes coordination between the genders in other realms. 

Furthermore, Brulé and Gaikwad add that “political office remains a strictly male domain in matrilineal tribes, as in patrilineal groups.” The state of Meghalaya is exempt from India’s constitutional mandate prescribing quotas for women in government positions. As a result, women are severely underrepresented in the state legislative assembly. 

But according to Brulé and Gaikwad, “despite exclusion from positions of authority, however, matrilineal women are active political participants: attending meetings, voicing concerns and organizing to resolve socioeconomic problems.”

The coexistence of social and political patriarchy with economic matriliny in Meghalaya is helpfully captured in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1: Cultural Resource Entitlements, Participation and Political Economy Preferences

Source: Brule and Gaikwad, Journal of Politics, 2021.

Main findings

To gather evidence for their analysis of the effects of lineage norms on gendered political behavior, Brulé and Gaikwad conducted interviews with 3,410 voting-age citizens who had resided in Shillong for at least ten years. To account for the potential effects of wealth inequality, they obtained “balanced samples of men and women, from matrilineal and patrilineal groups, who were rich and poor.” 

Interviewees were asked a series of questions about their political beliefs and behavior: whether they voted in Meghalay’s most recent Member of Legislative Assembly election; if they trusted their local legislators and political parties “to do the right thing for people in Shillong”; and if “it was possible for them to hold local politicians accountable for the functions they are supposed to perform.”

The results of the interviews revealed a striking reversal of the conventional political economy gender gap: in the matrilineal group, women were nine percentage points more likely than men to vote; eight percentage points more likely to trust their local legislators; 13 percentage points more likely to trust political parties; and 12 percentage points more likely to report being able to hold local politicians accountable.

Speaking on women’s high rates of political engagement in matrilineal communities, one woman interviewee said, “Women of our locality are active in politics. During election[s] we can see that they will leave everything and run for campaigning, [to] accompany the candidate during house-to-house visits and attend public meetings.”

The significance of these results is compounded by the fact that the gap between men’s and women’s political behaviors was the opposite amongst the patrilineal group: in that group, men were more likely than women to vote, trust legislators and political parties and report being able to hold local politicians accountable, as in traditional societies where men control economic entitlements. Figure 2 below summarizes the findings of these surveys:

Figure 2: Political Participation: Percentage Responses Among Men and Women, Respectively and the Difference in Responses Between Genders

Source: Brule and Gaikwad, Journal of Politics, 2021.

Brulé and Gaikwad also investigated the effect of lineage practices on their interviewees preferences for policies focused on taxation and redistribution. Worldwide, women tend to be more supportive than men of economic policy that strengthens the welfare state. 

However, Brulé and Gaikwad predicted that study participants would be less likely to support welfare state policies when a personal cost to supporting such policies was introduced. Regardless of gender, the authors expected that support for welfare policies would diminish as respondents anticipated “relinquishing wealth they control.”

In patrilineal societies where men control wealth, Brulé and Gaikwad found that patrilineal men “reacted negatively” to the “introduction of a personal cost to support public welfare.” Patrilineal women do not typically control wealth, and personal cost had no effect on patrilineal women’s support for public welfare.

But in matrilineal societies, women and men play a more equal role in the management of household finances; as a result, Brulé and Gaikwad found that the introduction of a personal cost to supporting public welfare “significantly deters both men and women, who jointly control wealth, from supporting state-provided services.”

The bottom line: individuals who exercise at least some control over material resources are less likely to support welfare policies when such policies impose a personal financial burden. 

Brulé and Gaikwad took the analysis one step further by testing “each respondent’s willingness to take action to advocate preferences about the welfare state.” They ran an experiment in which individuals could express their preferences by voluntarily filling out and mailing a pre-stamped postcard.

Their previous findings held true: when a personal cost was involved in supporting welfare policies, patrilineal men were 12 percentage points more likely to express opposition by filling out the postcards. The same effect was observed amongst matrilineal women, who were 14 percentage points more likely to express opposition with the introduction of personal cost. 

As the authors note, “These results support the claim that wealthy individuals with the agency to manage wealth are most sensitive to redistribution’s personal cost.”

In sum, the results of the study uncover the role of lineage norms in gendered political behavior and economic policy preferences. “In patrilineal communities, men are more likely than women to participate in politics and support a leaner welfare state,” Brulé and Gaikwad concluded. “But when daughters inherit wealth from mothers (i.e., matrilineal tribes), it is women who display higher levels of grassroots political engagement.” 

In matrilineal societies, men and women play a more equal role in managing material resources. The authors comment that “as a result, economic policy preferences converge,” with matrilineal men and women less likely to support the welfare state than patrilineal women. 

Brulé and Gaikwad suggest their framework for studying the interplay of cultural norms, economic resources, and political behavior can be applied to other facets of identity besides gender, such as race and ethnicity. They also encourage further study on gender differentials in attitudes towards the welfare state, including preferences about the optimal recipients for public goods and distribution strategies.

By identifying the role of cultural norms in structuring economic gender inequality, Brulé and Gaikwad’s findings can inform dialogue and public discourse on the political economy gender gap.

Read the Journal Article