About this Episode
On the Season 1 Finale of Prologued, we look back and what we have learned over the last seven weeks and forward to what this means for the future of women in American politics.
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Episode 8: The New Normal Transcript:
Last time, we ended our discussion of women in public office with an important question. As women's participation and influence in American politics expanded to include all avenues of American policy. have women fulfilled the promises of previous generations and effected change in modern government? And if the role of women in public office continues to expand, what does the future of American women's politics hold?
This is different from the previous questions this podcast has explore. both I and most of my guests are historians. We look back and study what has come before and this…this is a decidedly forward looking question. However, as we have been striving to make clear for seven episodes now: the past directly informs our present and future.
Today, we analyze if the promise of women's rights activists have come to fruition and what we can learn from the last 200 years of women's political history to better inform our present, and future.
For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, I’m Sarah Paxton and this is Prologued.
Mayor Nan Whaley
I have this belief and I think I'm right, I said this after the 2016 election up at Ashland university, that I believe Hillary Clinton's loss will be the change that has put more women into office than we've ever seen before and I think the 2018 election bore that out.
That's Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, whom you met at the end of the last episode. And like the rest of us, she watched closely the wave of women running for office in 2018 and the rapid increase in Congresswomen. And she doesn't see the rise of women stopping there.
Mayor Nan Whaley
When you have 35,000 women across the country signing up to run for election, we are seeing a dramatic shift again, and we have these waves they happen and they seem to be, you know, through this modern era, they get bigger each time. So you saw it like kind of in the, I think was like in the late 90s. Like you saw one of these. And then 20 years later, now, you see another one that's even larger. So really, it's become very easy for women to decide to run and there's more and more of us that do it and are successful. And so I think that's been a great, a great addition, the more people at the more women that do it, the more women that decide to step out and not be asked. I think that's even changing. You know, when I mean not even on the same way I had to be asked to run for office, you know, 15 years ago, now, women are so much more comfortable in the public space. They're like “I'm going to run!” Specifically younger women and I think that we're seeing a big change in the way that women believe the role should be in the public space. That's very, very exciting. So I don't think it's that hard, you know, to get involved anymore because it's almost that that's, that's, that's becoming more normalized. And it's very exciting. And I think we'll probably have to think, in a strange way, the loss of the woman president for making that happen.
Last time, Mayor Whaley remarked that in Dayton, women were heading up more offices and creating space for more women in public service. And this is especially poignant in the wake of 2018, which has been dubbed the 2018 year of the woman due to its similarities to 1992.
In 2018, on the federal level, another record breaking number of women ran in one congressional office so that women now account for nearly a quarter of the Federal legislature. This included an uptick in LGBTQ community members and women of color in Congress, including two native Congresswomen, representatives Deborah Holland and Sharice Davids. It also included four high profile victories in the 2018 midterm, collectively referred to as “The Squad,” comprised of representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rasheeda Talib of Michigan.
These elections will likely be critical to increasing women of color’s access to public office and political practice. According to Dr. Lilia Fernandez of Rutgers University, the election of Representative Ocasio-Cortez is simultaneously inspiring to the next generation of Latina Chicanos while also being representative of the work of Latina and Chicanas that came before her.
I think the visibility of high profile Latina politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is both a product of increased Chicana and Latina political engagement. But I think it's also inspiring other women, and providing them a model of how they too can become involved in their local communities—in civic life and in electoral politics. So, on the one hand, it's been the activism and engagement of Latinas in the past that have made it possible for someone like AOC to come to power. But at the same time, she's doing really important work along with a number of other Latina elected officials throughout the country, either holding some type of federal office or in local positions. They also, I think, are doing a really important job of being role models for young women, for other Latinos who may never have thought of themselves as being important enough or articulate enough to participate in the debates of our times and, you know, the issues that really are most affecting us as members of the society and as citizens in this country.
I celebrate the election of Holland's and David's in 2018.
That voice should sound familiar. That is Dr. Daniel Rivers, a historian of the Ohio State University, whom you have heard from a lot on prologues. Similar to Dr. Fernandez, he finds a connection between the inspirational aspect of electing Holland and Davids, and the native female leaders that came before them.
I think having the first two Native American women elected to Congress is a powerful precedent. And I think it sends a message to Native American girls and women, that they can be a part of the polity, and they can make a difference. I think of it in the same way that I think also of the election of Wilma Mankiller to the first principal chief position in the Cherokee. Mankiller paved the way for others after her so that I think that, as Native American women make inroads into the US government at all levels, and also are represented more fully within tribal governments, we make a step forward to correcting the erasers of their historical political participation in the nations in the influence of Anglo-colonial settler patriarchy.
The rise of women in American public life is undeniable. And as Dr. Fernandez and rivers said, this expansion is both built on the shoulders of women who came before and serves as an inspiration to future women. But it begs the question, does representation of women in government have an observable impact on American life? This is a crucial question. suffragists post 19th amendment activists, black activists, white activists, Latina activists, Asian activists, female candidates, they all argued that women should be provided political Access because they provided a different non male perspective that would ensure issues that were ignored or improperly handled, would be addressed. This was their major selling point. And according to Dr. Michelle swears, an expert on Congress women at Georgetown University, They were right.
So a lot of my research is about—once you account for party affiliation, ideology, all the rest--Do women focus any differently on particular issues, and there is evidence that the women would pay more attention to—issues related to women, children, and families—and try to put that on the agenda more. So right from when they got elected in 1992, some of the bigger changes were that there was now open an office of women's health in the NIH and a greater focus on issues related to women's health, because there had been an article that was out that showed that an aspirin a day, you know, would help prevent heart attacks. But then it was found that that study was done only on that, then they went and found that a lot of studies are done only on men, because women, it'd be more of an insurance risk. Because, you know, dealing with the reproductive system and everything. So a lot of studies were done only on men. And so then you wouldn't know how the effect would be on women. So they put a focus on that. They put a focus on all kinds of women's health research in the early 90s. Under the Clinton administration, this is also when they passed as part of the crime bill, the Violence Against Women Act. And that was the spearheaded, of course, by, you know, Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer as the heads of the Judiciary Committee, but also big forces behind this and pushing this were new female legislators. So women in the House, the Senate, Connie Morel on the Republican side, Pat Schroeder on the Democratic side. So there were a lot of women involved in terms of influence for women in Congress, you get more influence, both as numbers increase, but also as seniority increases and you reach positions of power. So Nancy Pelosi as speaker has a lot more power to steer the agenda and put issues that she thinks are important to women. So she was the driving force behind President Obama's health care plan getting passed.
So if the presence of women in Congress, and especially in leadership, is changing the political landscape of modern politics and policy priorities, it suggests that the more women there are in Congress, the more they will affect legislative output to advocate for women's issues. But as the concept of women's issues gets brought in to encompass all of American policy, is the concept still useful in analyzing women's impact on modern politics.
According to elected officials, like Mayor Whaley, women will vote for their and their family's well being first. And that's across the board. Not just on specific women's issues,
Mayor Nan Whaley
I think I think we learn more every election cycle and how it's not a monolith. I think it is important to remember that the women electorate will vote around safety and security first. And always first. And I think when people think about gun violence and gun violence prevention, that's the safety and security issue. And that's where I think women are first to define their vote. And I think that's a really important mark, because a lot of times people will say “Well, you know, I'm gonna get the support of women because I'm pro choice. And, you know, I'm a feminist.” And I think because there's a large portion of women that don't define themselves as feminists, first of all, which is, you know, in itself troubling but the motivation around women's vote is around the safety and security of their family and themselves. And that's, I think, the most important lesson about the woman electorate,
And many scholars agree that women are divided on what is best for them and their community. Dr. Swers says that while there are issues that are considered more closely associated with women, what those issues are all depends on who you're talking to
women's issues is very broad. So on the one hand, there are certain issues that you would say are definitely women's issues and others issues that you would say, maybe these are not. Or you could say all issues are women's issues, because women care about the economy and jobs, right, just as much as women care about health care. But there does seem to be a set of issues that maybe the parties believe that women care more intensely about, they have certainly reached out to women voters. And so the concept of women's issues is one that's very fluid because it depends on who's using it and how they're using it. But there is a sense that there are some category of issues that women voters should be more to.
And this gets to the crux of the issue. While female representation is critical to government developing a more responsive set of priorities, as Dr. Swers argues, the focus on female elected officials cannot be limited to simply electing women for the sake of electing women. Rather, it is what those female candidates view as women's issues that should drive their candidacy. Dr. Joan Flores-Villalobos is a historian of women's history who recently joined the University of Southern California's history department. And she found that her students were more focused on which candidate supported the issues important to them, rather than the gender of the candidate.
I teach a class on U.S. Women's and Gender history. And we always have a section about, obviously, we talked about suffrage quite a bit and ended with a consideration of what women's political participation has been, right? I mean, suffrage did not align exactly with the growth of women voting and it certainly has not aligned with commercial growth in women as politicians, right? So we still don't have a kind of equal gender representation in politics.
And I always ask my students why they think that is, and if they think that's a problem, and I will say for the most part, my students all said that they cared more about who supports the issues rather than the gender of the candidate, despite the fact that they saw it as a problem that women were not as well represented politically. And I think part of it is that they've been thinking so much about issues like abortion, like trans rights, that are so important to them, and they don't necessarily see those aligning with candidates who are women, and they think those are much more important things to be addressed rather than women's political representation. So I think it was an interesting response. It wasn't necessarily what I asked from them, oh, except for one student who had worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign, and he was very adamant that we needed more women.
While this does call into question a focus on electing women for representation sake, it also demonstrates that women are not necessarily limited to be candidates of just specific issues. They need to speak to the needs of their community, including both male and female voters.
And that brings us to the final and central question of our podcast.
What can we learn from the last 200 years of women's activism and last century of women's voting to better engage women voters, establish policy priorities, and understand the modern political landscape?
Tough question. I think it's a broad one, too. I mean, I think that what is most important for them to recognize is that Chicana and Latinas are an important part of the electorate that they do come out on election day and vote whether for local office or for higher positions. And they come and vote just like everyone else based on the concerns that they have in their communities, pocketbook issues, I guess, that are affecting people on a day to day basis. They're concerned about health care about, you know, public schools, about student loan debt, about violence against women, about the environment, labor issues, wages and economic concerns. So, I think that probably the most thing that folks might want to take away is that they need to take Latina and she got a voter seriously listen to them on what their concerns are in their local communities. And just as with all other voters, engage them and try to address the things that they are most worried about on a day to day basis.
I do think if I were a republican or in the republican hierarchy, I would say we have got to do more. To get women candidates, we need more republican women in elective office, we need to show female voters that this party respects women and their abilities and their ability to lead and to represent their country.
I think some of what we can learn from the lessons of even early activism right before the suffrage movement, but certainly during the suffrage movement as well, was that there were really intense racial and ethnic divisions within these movements that created a lot of difficulty. And that part of this was that white women suffragists were often not responsive to the intersectional critiques that black women, for example, brought, right? But they saw anti-lynching campaigns as deeply involved with issues of gender, right, issues of gender and sexuality and not everybody agreed.
And I think you see some of that now, as well, particularly with the issue of immigration. So I'm a Latina, and a lot of people in my community vote on the issue of immigration, right. That is the number one issue that they will vote for no matter what. And that doesn't necessarily align with female candidates or candidates who are concerned with issues of gender at all right. But to a lot of immigrant communities, it is seen as an issue of gender, because families are the ones that are being really attacked by some of the kind of anti-immigrant legislation of recent years.
As someone deeply influenced by the work of Audre Lord, the great black lesbian writer, I think that all political work of necessity is work of coalition and coalition is really difficult. It's not easy and involves working with people that disagree on some of the most fundamental issues. And I think if there is ever large scale women's voting Coalition's they will have to be deeply mindful of the toxic impact of homophobia, racism, transphobia, ableism, classism, if these deep structural hatreds that manifest in the everyday as much as they manifest in large scale institutions are not dealt with at every moment, then it makes coalition impossible.
So while there are many issues that women's activists are engaged in, I think kind of the most direct legacy should be for us to think about universal voting rights and the various ways in which women's voting rights, the voting rights of people of color, are still infringed upon today, especially since the 2013 Shelby v Holder decision, which dismantled key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, because it wasn't until the Voting Rights Act that the 15th amendment in the 19th amendment became reality for all women in America. And to see that it has since been, in many ways dismantled, I think should be a concern for us all and should be a thing that we focus on, especially in these 2020 discussions about the suffrage centennial.
Listen to women of color. That's it.
The concept of the women's voting bloc, the idea that women will vote in a specific and similar way, simply because they are women, has been a persistent narrative in American politics since the turn of the 20th century. Yet, as we've seen over the last eight episodes, there has never been a cohesive bloc of women.
If you take nothing else from the last eight episodes of women's history, remember this. American women are complex—their values, their experiences, and their priorities, they're all shaped through individual lenses, not just a gendered scope. I know it is tempting to pull back down the mask of the women's voting bloc and begin vying for a generalized women's vote. And I understand this is especially true in the middle of an election cycle, during which a diverse field was whittled down to a final race between two white men. However, history requires a more nuanced view of the female electorate, and a more expansive view of female candidates who are shaping the new normal of American politics.
Currently, we have the third female vice presidential nominee of a major political party, a female Speaker of the House, and an unprecedented number of both liberal and conservative women running for federal office. It is fitting that such a monumental time in American history falls on the centennial of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. And we are not only reminded that this political access is built on the over 100 years of activism of those that came before, but also that our current actions serve as the prologue for the next 100 years.
For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, I’m Sarah Paxton, and thank you for listening to Prologued.
This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the history departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with support from the Stanton foundation. Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. It was written and hosted by Sarah Paxton with research support from Min A Park. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean and Oranjudio. Song and band information can be found on our website, and we encourage our listeners to visit episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that made this podcast possible. You can find our podcast and more on our website origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. As always, you can find us on Twitter @ProloguedPod and @originsOSU. Thanks for listening.