Women and American Politics: Another Great Awakening?

In the days following the upset victory of Democratic candidate Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, journalists and pundits searched for reasons why his GOP opponent, Rick Saccone, lost in a cluster of southwestern counties that Donald Trump had carried by 20 points. While many saw the race as a bellwether of Trump’s waning popularity, others zeroed in on the personal qualities and positions of the two men, and some pointed to the role of labor unions in a heavily working-class region. For these latter analysts, union support was more or less synonymous with the grassroots, but what was missing in this equation was the impact of newly-formed women’s networks in the Pittsburgh suburbs whose members fanned out not only in their own neighborhoods but in the rural areas where support for Trump had once been strongest. As one GOP voter told The New York Times, “if it wasn’t Lamb yard signs, it was his supporters knocking on doors.” Many of the doorknockers belonged to those networks of women.

Their presence came as no surprise to University of Pittsburgh historian Lara Putnam, who, with Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, had been studying the “resistance movement,” and especially women’s role in it, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and several other midsize cities for many months leading up to the election. “Lamb’s campaign was powered by two core Democratic constituencies routinely portrayed as irreconcilable: college-educated suburban progressives and traditional blue-collar labor,” Putnam wrote in Democracy. “What’s really powered this, the viability of the campaign,” she told Yahoo News, “is two separate forces that have managed to work well together.”

The networks they are writing about began to take shape soon after the 2016 election. It was clear from the unprecedented turnout for the post-inaugural women’s demonstrations that Trump’s ignominious defeat of Hillary Clinton had spurred hundreds of thousands of women to action. In city after city, a spark leapt from Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Hillary Facebook group that had gone viral over the course of the presidential race, to the Women’s March, bringing hundreds of thousands of women into the streets on January 21, 2017.

But the question on everyone’s lips was, could all that energy be channeled into the kind of sustained and effective political work needed to weaken Trump and the Republican hold on Congress, beginning with the mid-term elections? Putnam and Skocpol claim that it could. Many women, they discovered, became determined to move beyond their initial outrage to reclaim “citizen ownership of public life.” In their recent article in Democracy, the two scholars offer a description of women in suburban “middle America” who are “leaning in … mobilizing politically at the grassroots level” to make a difference in politics. The outcome in District 18 indicates that in at least one race, they have.

Network members focus on supporting (mostly) Democratic candidates whose positions they find congenial, challenging gerrymandering, lobbying for specific bills in state legislatures and pushing for changes they would like to see in their own communities. Their rich knowledge of local conditions, political and otherwise, makes them highly effective at pinpointing key issues, canvassing and getting out the vote. Their deep and longstanding personal ties with one another motivate them to become reliable, hardworking volunteers.

The movement Skocpol and Putnam sketch out resembles the Tea Party in its organization but, they argue, it is not a left-wing version of the Tea Party insofar as it has a broad ideological range (from center to left, and even reaching out to moderate Republicans) and is also highly decentralized. Network members try to work in harness with the local Democratic apparatus but on occasion feel compelled to challenge it. In one Pittsburgh suburb, for example, a women’s group recruited a Democratic lawyer who was willing to run as an independent in the race for a local judgeship in order to oppose a lackluster candidate who had been endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

While retaining their independence from conventional political organizations, network members occasionally turn for advice to one of the national “resistance” organizations that have emerged in the wake of 2016 (Indivisible, for example, offers a useful manual for grassroots organizers), but not necessarily allying with any particular one.

Effective as these networks may prove to be in turning red states and districts into blue ones, at the moment they do not appear to be especially interested in advancing women per se along more conventional political lines by, for example, persuading them to run for office (though some members do, especially at the local level). In this sense, they more closely resemble the grand dame of women’s political organizations, the League of Women Voters (LWV), which has been around for almost a century. LWV was created in 1920 by the merger of several women’s suffrage organizations, just as they were on the verge of victory. Its stated goal was “to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters … [and] use their new power to participate in shaping public policy.” But this has never taken the form of recruiting female candidates.

Across the country, women are dramatically underrepresented in the 500,000 elected offices that exist at all levels. The proportion of women in Congress has never exceeded 20 percent; in state legislatures, they’ve managed to reach 25 percent, but fewer than 19 percent of the mayors of large cities are female. And when it comes to voting for their sisters, certain groups of women fall woefully short. In 2016, white college-educated women—the demographic pundits assumed would be most enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton—gave her only a six-point margin over Donald Trump—51 percent to 45 percent. Black women were much more supportive: Those who were non-college educated gave Clinton 95 percent of their votes, those with college degrees, 91 percent. For Hispanics, the numbers were also enthusiastically pro-Hillary—70 percent and 65 percent, respectively. The weakest support for Clinton came from non-college-educated white women: only 34 percent.

Whether Clinton failed to ignite women voters because of her unique baggage and misjudgments or because of a profound degree of misogyny in American culture remains an open question. Whatever the case, Clinton’s defeat has generated a range of political responses by women—not only the local networks that Putnam and Skocpol describe, but also many new and newly reawakened organizations focused specifically on getting more women into office. One immediate result is that, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, more than 430 women have declared or are considering declaring their candidacy for the U.S. House, and another 50 for the Senate.

The National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) is one example of a “newly reawakened organization.”

It was formed in 1971, at a time when the women's movement was, like today’s networks, largely grassroots and diffuse, but unlike them it was also vocally anti-establishmentarian, with many activists rejecting electoral politics as useless at best, corrupt at worst. The founders of NWPC thought otherwise. As their own chronicle recounts, these women, “[s]purred by Congress’s failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970 … believed legal, economic and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.”

The founders included Gloria Steinem, already an icon of second-wave feminism; two New York representatives, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug; Dorothy Height, longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a leading civil rights lawyer who would go on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and eventually become Washington, D.C.’s delegate in the U.S. House. The group also included one Republican: Elly Peterson, former vice-chair of the Republican National Committee.

As evidence of its success, the NWPC points to dramatic increases in the number of women elected as mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress since its founding, as well as the growing prominence of women’s issues on political agenda. Presenting itself as “multi-partisan,” it has worked to increase women’s representation in both major parties. When Congress finally did pass the ERA, in 1972, it threw itself into organizing a nationwide grassroots ratification campaign. Remaining active and, to a great extent, maintaining a feminist presence as many other second-wave organizations have faded, NWPC continues to recruit and train women to run for office at all levels, and to endorse and support pro-choice women for both appointed and elected positions.

While the NWPC cleaves to its original mission, the political landscape surrounding it has changed. As Gloria Steinem reminded me recently, the organization “was founded to raise the importance of women in elected and appointed office. It was bipartisan, with a statement of purpose that included reproductive freedom. There were more such Republicans then—remember, they supported the ERA long before Democrats did. … The NWPC hasn't changed, but the Republican Party has.” In an era of profound polarization, bipartisan support for issues like reproductive rights can no longer be taken for granted.

Protecting reproductive rights is, of course, the main focus of Planned Parenthood, an even older organization (founded over a century ago) that is more vibrant today than ever. Established in 1916 by birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger primarily to provide reproductive health services to women, the organization has always also had to play a political role in American society. Under the charismatic leadership of Cecile Richards, who just stepped down as president, Planned Parenthood has over the years fended off repeated assaults on reproductive rights, energizing millions of women as voters and civic activists in the struggle.

Supporting 56 chapters and over 600 health facilities, Planned Parenthood spends well over a billion dollars a year. Few other women’s organizations or individual female candidates can rely on such hefty budgets. Indeed, funding has always been a major issue for female candidates. As Susan Chira recently noted in The New York Times, although more women than ever are contributing to political candidates, the size of their donations is limited by their own (lack of) personal wealth. In Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Chira pointed out, “men still gave the most money and were the largest individual donors.”

Activists seeking to promote female candidates became aware of this particular challenge early on. Following close on the heels of NWPC, in 1974 one group established the Women’s Campaign Fund to provide financial support to women candidates. The organization stipulated, however, that those it backed had to be committed to creating “common ground,” a type of politics that “encompasses a set of values and a type of leadership, an alternative to the sharp-elbowed politics that keeps America gridlocked. Common Ground means asking, listening, and hearing what your colleagues and constituents value and need. Common Ground means bringing allies and opponents together through communication, collaboration, and principled negotiation—then taking action.” This, according to the organization, could be achieved by electing more women to public office at all levels.

But funding continued to be a concern for female candidates. In 1985 Emily R. Malcolm, a longtime political operative and heir to an IBM fortune, founded Emily’s List, an organization that operated on the principle that “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (i.e., it makes the dough rise). This was “a reference to a convention of political fundraising that receiving major donations early in a race is helpful in attracting other, later donors.” Malcolm went on to preside over the List until 2010. During her tenure, the organization raised and spent nearly $270 million to help elect dozens of pro-choice female candidates, including Senators Barbara Mikulski and Tammy Baldwin, the Senate’s first openly gay member; Representatives Nita Lowey and Jolene Unsoeld; and Texas Governor Ann Richards. Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, founded in 1999, also funds women candidates, but, as its name indicates, focuses on younger women; it is nonpartisan.

Other activists contended that money alone was not sufficient to advance women candidates; special measures were needed to get them to run in the first place. In 2011, Erin Loos Cutraro, who had been the political director of Women’s Campaign Fund, broke away to found She Should Run, an organization that offered “The Incubator,” “a first-of-its-kind virtual community and series of resources for women considering a run for office.” Similarly, Running Start, a spinoff of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, works to “inspire young women and girls to political leadership.”

Despite their feminist leanings, the National Women’s Political Caucus, She Should Run, and Running Start, are avowedly non-partisan, a stance that entitles them to claim 501(c)(3) tax status, which, in turn, allows donors to make their contributions tax-deductible. Other organizations protect their C-3 status by spinning off separate entities to lobby and support political candidates; for example, Planned Parenthood is divided into two branches—a (c)(3), which provides services, conducts research and does public education; and a (c)(4), the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which aggressively resists efforts to restrict choice. The Action Fund has, in turn, set up a Political Action Committee, which campaigned vigorously for Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton.

Many of the more recently formed organizations forego the 501(c)(3) designation altogether in the interest of pursuing more specific goals, becoming 501(c)(4)s or 527s. Some take this step to advance a particular demographic: Higher Heights, for example, aims at promoting Black women leaders, Latinas Represent serves Latinas, and the Victory Fund, LGBTQ candidates. Others eschew nonpartisanship in favor of a narrowly partisan political range; Run for Something only supports Democratic women under age 35 who wish to run for office, while Emily’s List, as noted above, funnels money to pro-choice Democratic women. Emerge America and its numerous state chapters help women become leaders not just in politics but in education and business, but they must be Democrats. By contrast, VoteRunLead manages to keep its 501(c)(3) status by emphasizing the openness of its mission: “to educate diverse women to unleash their political power, seek public office and transform American democracy.”

Given the variety of their foci and structures, these explicitly feminist organizations can offer a range of options for women seeking to become politically active—especially those on the Democratic side of the aisle. But their variety may also be their weakness; can all of them survive? And, equally important, can they work in tandem with “co-ed” blue organizations such as Swing Left or Sister District, both of which aim to shift surplus political resources from “deep-blue” regions to red ones deemed susceptible to being “turned”? Or will the feminist groups end up competing with the others for members and money? Another recently formed network, Action Together, seeks to avoid that kind of outcome by bringing “progressive” people together “in productive and mutually-supportive ways,” but women who are aware of feminists’ long and often unhappy history of working in coalition with the Left may be wary of conceding any of their autonomy to such a group.

Meanwhile, the vibrant, restless realm of social media acts as a perpetual political centrifuge, regularly spinning off new, seemingly urgent causes that threaten to draw women activists—and their supporters—away from electoral tasks. In the past few months alone, #MeToo/Time’s Up and now the March for Our Lives/#Never Again Movement have come to dominate the headlines (though even they have had to compete with the president’s daily outrages for air and print space). While both movements address causes that are obviously important for women candidates, they may crowd out other issues (especially local matters) that are more central to a given campaign. The timing and significance of such causes and their relevance for particular candidates will no doubt affect the outcome of many races in November.


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