Woman and Politics in the United States: A Complex Panorama

The diverse involvement of women at local, regional and federal level has long been central to the political development of the United States. Nevertheless, women are still significantly underrepresented in political office. Can this change now?

Even to begin to describe the political engagements and impacts of American women involves diving deep into the complex tapestry of difference that undergird the deceptively simple category of “woman.”

One-third of voting-age women citizens in the United States are women of color. That includes 15 million Black women, 13.6 million Latinas, and 5 million Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women combined. Each of these categories is itself internally diverse by race and ethnicity the experience of Afro-Latinas is not identical to that of Latinas who are identified as white; the range of experience among Indian-American women is not the same as that among Americans of Chinese ancestry - as well as by education, age, employment, region of residence, and more. An African American young woman in a rural community in Mississippi grows up confronting a range of forms of structural and interpersonal racism, just as does an African American young woman in suburban Minneapolis: but exactly which forms of racism each confronts will be different, as will be the range of response strategies each finds in the community around her, and the political commitments and self-concept that each creates as a result.

Meanwhile, nearly 5 percent of US adults identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), including over 8 percent of the younger generation (“millennials,” that is, those born between 1980 and 1999). And in recent years the percentage self-identifying as LGBT has risen markedly faster among women (increasing from 3.5 to 5.1 percent between 2012 and 2017) than among men (from 3.4 to 3.9 percent).

Gender, education, age, and residence have emerged as ever more crucial lines of political division within the United States, adding on to the race-based fault-lines that have been central to US politics since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s cemented African American identification with the Democratic Party and triggered the exodus from that party of some white voters alienated by the same.  Over the past half century the Republican Party has become, in sequence, a party largely of white people, a party anchored by white evangelicals, and now a party increasingly comprised of older white men and white evangelical women. In geographic terms, the Republican Party as a force in civic life is pervasive in rural America and barely present in major metropoles. Its once dominant position in America’s prosperous suburbs has been rapidly crumbling: a process in which the shifting views of the women who reside there have played a leading role.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 accelerated the divides of age, education, and gender among white Americans, as college-educated white women swung sharply away from both Trump and the Republican party, with college-educated white men moving in the same direction, albeit less sharply. Meanwhile, white men without a college degree had long been shifting their voting allegiance toward the Republican Party and accelerated this movement in 2016 support of Donald Trump, who they supported by more than a 2-to-1 margin. White women without a college degree opted for Donald Trump in 2016 (by a smaller 3-to-2 margin) but - unlike their male peers - saw a small but significant reduction of this level of Republican preference in the 2018 midterms. Those same midterm elections saw an important generational divide in suburban and rural areas alike, as younger voters (aged 30-44) and especially the youngest voters (aged 18-29) swung their voting preference decidedly away from Republican congressional candidates in comparison to the numbers Donald Trump garnered among these same demographics just two years before.

Against this panorama of diversity and variety, the narrow demographic profile of American politicians stands out. Elected official, of both parties and at every layer of government have until quite recently been heavily male and, in the great majority of places, heavily white. After 2018’s record number of female Democratic successes, a record high of one-fourth of US senators, and 101 out of 435 congresspeople, are women. These are meager numbers indeed for a high-water mark.

This lag in representation has endured despite the fact that women’s labor has long been central to the practice of politics here, in diverse ways and spaces. Everywhere from to the right-wing evangelical pro-life organizing in the 1980s and 1990s and anti-Obama “Tea Party” conservatives after 2008, to the new suburban center-Left anti-Trump grassroots after 2016, to Black church-based civic engagement across all those decades, middle-aged and older women have played fundamental leadership roles.

Maintaining the health of local political structures - those groups and spaces, both formal and informal, in which people meet, learn, debate, decide, and take political action - requires skilled organizational and interpersonal labor. Yet this ongoing local dimension of political life is often ignored, by media, donors, and political consultants: and sometimes academics studying politics as well.

Of course, the same thing happens with other kinds of human maintenance traditionally in women’s hands, from housecleaning to eldercare. 

Just as carework matters, local political infrastructure matters. It matters that Democratic infrastructure collapsed across many different communities within the United States over the past decade, and it matters that it is being rebuilt now. And it matters that the people doing that rebuilding are in the majority women, including many who are outsiders to politics but insiders in the communities around them.

Greater diversity happens when local networks of regular citizens drive candidate recruitment and support. That’s because those networks bypass the gatekeepers whose presumptions about electability - and whose own narrow networks - have kept candidates who look just like those already in office (as it happens, mostly straight, white men) systematically overrepresented on the ballot. Across America’s divided political geography - in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike - the past four years have seen viable campaigns mounted with local grassroots volunteer support by candidates who are more diverse than existing office-holders along every dimension, including ideology as well as gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and more. 

In 2018 many Democratic women challengers ran in districts deemed unlikely to flip; the same is true of Republican women challengers in 2020. Yet even campaigns that lose can have long-term consequences. In place after place, new grassroots activists have chosen to place state legislature campaigns and US congressional campaigns at the forefront of their daily lives for long, impassioned, bond-building, crazy-making months. And when those candidates lost, organized volunteers did not thrown up their hands in despair. They stepped into the glamor-free, essential work of political organizing for the long haul: rewriting by-laws, planning picnics, recruiting new people with new energy to run for school board or recorder of deeds.

As regular women with a wide range of life experiences step in to lead across the Democratic ecosystem, including in formal roles at the local, regional, and state levels, the weight of their voices in deliberations large and small will grow. (The same pattern may happen ahead within the Republican Party: the jury is still out on whether the smaller number of women activists and aspiring officials who remain there will be able to gain the same traction there.) We can expect that issues where diverse Democratic women’s priorities overlap - across differences of class, race, and region will exert an intensified pull on the Democratic Party.

One area where this may have an impact is on issues at the intersection of gender, health, and labor, which have been pushed to the fore by the novel coronavirus epidemic. In a de-industrialized America, healthcare labor alongside service-sector employment makes up a bulk of the workforce occupation in many regions. Each are heavily feminized, and structured in ways that have been resistant to the kind of labor protections and unionization rights that (male-predominant) building trades and industrial workers maintain in some regions of the country, even after a long generation of erosion.

Over half of all people employed in positions considered “essential” in the face of the coronavirus pandemic (healthcare workers, critical retail workers, food processing and delivery and more) are women. And so weighty are these occupations within women’s overall employment panorama in this country that fully one in three women are employed in a job categorized as essential. Will women working in these areas find new allies as they struggle for basic measures (safer working conditions, paid sick leave, personal protective equipment) that can keep individuals, and thus their families and communities, healthy?

The diversification of activism and leadership within the broad center-to-Left in the United States also has the potential to shape opening for substantive change in response to the entwined issues of anti-black racism, structural inequities, and police brutality. These issues, of course, were brought to the fore in the killing of unarmed George Floyd in Minneapolis by a policeman, in excruciating public view, on May 25. An extraordinary wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests, led by young Black activists male and female alike (and queer and non-binary too) has followed nationwide in its wake.

More than 3,000 different communities, including small towns in rural regions as well as small cities and suburbs have held protests, and the willingness of white allies to join local Black organizers has been notable. A sign echoed at more than one protest has read, “When George Floyd called for his momma, all mothers were summoned.” The phrasing points to the emotional weight of motherhood in creating potential political action: a kind of “maternalist” logic that historians know has been both powerful and fraught. Too often in US history, that impulse has brought with it the capacity to re-marginalize: to mask the profound and power-laden differences among women behind the universalizing rhetoric of mother’s love. How the challenges of solidarity will be managed this time remains to be seen.

If recent trends continue, the November 2020 electorate will be made up of just over one-quarter white women without a college degree; just under one-quarter white men without a college degree; about 15% white women with a college degree and 15% white men with a college degree; about 6% African American women and 4% African American men; 5% Latinas and 5% Latinos; and half those numbers for Asian Americans. Eligible voters born since 1996 will outnumber eligible voters born before 1946 for the first time, and “Millienials” (born 1981-1996) will reach parity with “Baby Boomers” (born 1946-1964). 

They will be charting a way forward in unprecedented times, across political terrain being remade even as they move.

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