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When it comes to health, men have long benefited from women in power

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Photo credit: 
Harris and Ewing: Library of Congress

It’s always great to see the work of one of our researchers shouted out in the New York Times. It’s even better when it becomes the scientific basis of an argument thrown into the mix of a presidential campaign.

Nicholas Kristof asserted in his column on Sunday that when women are involved in the political process and given the capacity to shape public policy, everyone benefits, particularly when it comes to health.

Kristof, who covers human rights, women’s rights, health and global affairs for the Times, wrote in his column:

Put aside your feelings about Hillary Clinton: I understand that many Americans distrust her and would welcome a woman in the White House if it were someone else. But whatever one thinks of Clinton, her nomination is a milestone, and a lesson of history is that when women advance, humanity advances.

 

Grant Miller of Stanford University found that when states, one by one, gave women the right to vote at the local level in the 19th and early 20th centuries, politicians scrambled to find favor with female voters and allocated more funds to public health and child health. The upshot was that child mortality rates dropped sharply and 20,000 children’s lives were saved each year.

 

Many of those whose lives were saved were boys. Today, some are still alive, elderly men perhaps disgruntled by the cavalcade of women at the podium in Philadelphia. But they should remember that when women gained power at the voting booth, they used it to benefit boys as well as girls.

Miller, an associate professor of medicine and core faculty member of Stanford Health Policy, first wrote about this issue in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2008, arguing that women’s choices appear to emphasize child welfare more than those of men.

He presented evidence on how state-to-state suffrage rights for U.S. women from 1869 to the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave all women the right to vote, helped children benefit from scientific breakthroughs.

Simple hygienic practices — including hand and food washing, boiling water and milk, refrigerating meat and the renewed emphasis on breastfeeding — were among the most important innovations in the 19th and early 20th centuries to help protect children from often-fatal diseases such typhoid fever, smallpox, measles and scarlet fever.

“Communicating their importance to the American public required large-scale door-to-door hygiene campaigns, which women championed at first through voluntary organizations and then through government,” explained Miller, who is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

As women became more and more involved in state and federal politics, Miller found, child mortality declined by 8 to 15 percent, or 20,000 fewer child deaths each year.

“Public health historians clearly link the success of hygiene campaigns to the rising influence of women,” Miller wrote, citing examples with data and graphs.

That women have been — and can be — so influential seems like a no-brainer, but it’s nice to have the science to back it up.