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Transcript - Women in American Politics

images of eight female politicians

 

As we near the centennial of the 19th Amendment—and with the possibility of America’s first female president on the horizon—History Talk takes a look at women’s role in American politics. Guests Kimberly Hamlin, Susan Hartmann, and David Steigerwald discuss the impact of women’s suffrage in the twentieth century, the emergence of female political candidates, and the cultural and institutional hurdles faced by women seeking public office.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript begins here:

Patrick Potyondy 
Welcome to History Talk the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host Patrick Potyondy.

Mark Sokolsky 
And I'm your other host Mark Sokolsky. This year will mark the first time in US history that a woman, Hillary Clinton, has been nominated for the presidency by one of the major parties and come November she may well be elected America's first female president. Clinton's candidacy comes after more than a century of changes in women's role in American political life. Yet female political leaders still face many hurdles in the pursuit of public office. Joining us today to discuss the history of women in American politics and the challenges that remain, are three historians who we'll ask to introduce themselves.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I'm Susan Hartmann from Ohio State University, and I specialize in American political history and women's history.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
I'm David Steigerwald also from the Department of History at Ohio State. I'm kind of a generalist in 20th century history. My areas of real specialty are mid-century, up to 1980.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
And I'm Kimberly Hamlin, I'm an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I specialize in Women's and Gender history in the 19th and 20th centuries. And before graduate school, I worked for pro-choice female candidates and on Capitol Hill.

Patrick Potyondy 
Alright, thanks for joining us today on History Talk, we wanted to start off by talking a little bit about 1920. We're about to hit the centennial of women's suffrage. People made big predictions at the time about how women voting would completely change the dynamics of American politics. And so our first question is, did it do that? Why or why not? So maybe, Susan, if you want to start us off here?

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
It really didn't change national politics until about a half century later. For one thing, as a new voting group, women's turnout at the polls was much lower than men's and it remained, it remained lower until about the 1970s. That's true of all new voting groups. And then women entered political office very, very slowly. There were fewer than 20 women in Congress until the 1970s.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
And can I add to Susan's?

Mark Sokolsky 
Absolutely

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
One point to that, while political participation and voter turnout numbers weren't dramatic or huge for women, I think symbolically women as voters was a huge massive shift in our country. And so we saw in the wake of women's suffrage, a shift in polling places, from saloons, and you know, places that were kind of male spaces to polling places, being churches, libraries, schools. And also the symbolic notion of who counts as a citizen in our country, I think, was a big kind of national shift. I’m currently working on a biography of the suffragist who was the lead negotiator with President Wilson and Congress, her name is Helen Hamilton Gardner. And Wilson appointed her to the Civil Service Commission in 1920. And this made her the highest-ranking woman in federal government. And so in researching that I found a huge kind of discourse of female citizenship, what it means for women to be full and equal citizens. So I think symbolically, it was big.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Well, can we talk a little bit more about turnout and voter participation? First of all, as I understand it the data is really not very good. And only Illinois distinguished between female and male voters. And so, Illinois has long had a kind of privileged place in the political science accounting of the 1920 election. It does look as though women's participation rates were lower, but how much lower is a little bit fuzzy in the political science literature. And there are other ways to participate. Of course, one of the things that a lot of people in 1921 were noting is that women helped push through the Sheppard-Towner Act, an act for hygiene, you know, with expectant mothers and new infants. And the press of the day regarded that as a great victory for the suffragists. It's an indication of women's growing clout or potential clout in national politics.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
But they didn't renew it, when they realized they passed it. I think, because they did expect that, you know, that women's vote would be a powerful, a powerful block. And it turned out it wasn't in and they didn't renew it. There were other reasons for that, too. 

Dr. David Steigerwald 
But it also reminds me, Susan, that declining rates in the 1920s were across the board. And so whatever activism seemed to grow out of 1920, withered pretty quickly, and that was akin to what was going on with other voting groups.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I think also that we should mention that women did play very active roles in both political parties, each party had a women's division, and they put in a lot of hard work in getting out the vote and getting issues out before the public. And so women were actively involved in politics. I just don't think they made much of a dent in terms of national politics until about the 1960s.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
And that might bring us to another part of your question initially, which was about do women vote as a block? Why or why not? So I don't know if Susan or David noticed that, too. But it might also be that women, especially on so-called women's issues, you know, working mother's issues, Shepherd-Towner or reproductive rights, do not tend to vote in lockstep for sure, and certainly not as a block.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Yeah, actually, I was hoping that one of the things we could talk about is the existence of a gender gap or gender affinity voting, because it does seem to be a much more recent phenomenon than it would be, if we go back to 1920.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
And it's, it's primarily these days, a phenomenon of unmarried women. I think something like 60-65% of unmarried women supported Obama. Married women, it tends to divide, you know, pretty evenly between the parties. But single women really vote heavily democratic.

Patrick Potyondy 
Is that largely connected at all to why women remain underrepresented in political office, you know, 1920 and forward, is that they don't vote as a block and they were expected to?

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
Well, I think you had few women, just had few women candidates.

Patrick Potyondy 
Right Okay.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
You didn't have a lot of support for running women parties. We're not encouraging women to run. So I think it wasn't just because women voted in fewer numbers than men. But there were a lot of other reasons why it took a while. And most women when they did enter national political office, Congress or any in the Senate, and even governorships, they literally entered over their dead husband's bodies. The majority of women who sat in Congress until about 1950, filled their dead husband seats, and a couple of them went on to have political careers of their own. But most of them were placeholders until they could hold an election.

Mark Sokolsky
Besides having dead husbands, is there anything that early, that women, who held political office early on in the 20th century that they had in common?

Dr. Susan Hartmann
The one that comes to mind is they of course, had worked in their political parties, and they had gained some reputation by the work that they had done for their parties. They weren't like most men, lawyers. I mean, you know, the legal profession is probably the most common entry into Congress. But very few women went to law school until the 1970s. So they didn't have that kind of background either.

Patrick Potyondy 
Kimberly or David, do you have thoughts on what sort of women candidates run or run and win in American politics? Is there something about the structure of American politics that produces a certain type of candidate?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
I'm not sure. I'm really not, other than perhaps class, or background. But it seems to me that the partisan associations of women candidates have been just as divided as male, although, of course, now at this point, because there is a gender gap in voting. Women representatives in Congress, for example, are about what, two thirds Democrat. So we see that changing as the gender gap begins to accumulate in the latter part of the 20th century. But I'm disinclined to pick out particular traits.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
I agree, I'm disinclined to pick out particular traits as well. And to me that kind of common denominator in terms of which types of candidates are favored, I think cuts across gender, and it applies to male and female candidates. And that is people who are good fundraisers and or people who are connected to insane amounts of wealth, either personally, or through their career networks. So I think that that, to me is kind of the common denominator of political candidates. And that, you know, without meaningful campaign finance reform laws, I think it's hard to really broaden the network and have a more diverse array of candidates and issues, not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of race, class and ethnicity.

Patrick Potyondy 
And this, this is actually a really great transition for us here that we want to know about, you know, what problems does a woman running for president or really any political office in general face that are different from that of a male candidate? I wonder if national security is a particularly hard issue? And maybe once in office what obstacles will the first female president face? Kimberly, if you wanted to start us off here?

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Sure. I think, you know, in the past, a common objection to a woman president would be "Oh, well, if women can't be in the military, how could a woman be president and be commander in chief?" And I think over the last 5,10,15 years, that argument has really lost its sway for two reasons. One, male presidents have stopped having military experience and indeed, in recent presidential elections, male candidates without military experience, have defeated military heroes. So Clinton over Bush I and over Dole, Bush II over Kerry, and Obama over McCain. And then the second change, I think, is that women now do serve in combat roles. So this argument that women can't be commander in chief, I think, I feel, I intuit, I don't know if the other panelists will agree, but to my mind, that one is sort of losing sway. So that one doesn't seem as convincing to me anymore. But another, perhaps more entrenched obstacle that women candidates face is just the deep seated, gendered and sexist stereotypes that we have in our culture. And something I kind of sum up as “talking while female.” It's very hard for women that you know, running for president to sound tough, without sounding shrill or bitchy, or, you know, any other of the negative kind of words we associate with women's leadership or women in positions of authority. So to my mind, that is kind of the large remaining obstacle that we have in our culture.

Patrick Potyondy 
An obstacle Hillary Clinton has run into while she's been running.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Exactly. Okay, exactly. It'll be interesting to see how she kind of plays that out over the next few months in response to what I can only imagine are going to be, you know, horrific attacks by Donald Trump.

Patrick Potyondy 
Follow ups from Susan or David?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
I would have said, pretty much this the same way or made the same point half as well. So there's no reason why I should add anything.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I think another thing that has to do with the commander in chief issue is that since the Clinton administration, we've become used to seeing women as Ambassador to the UN, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Navy, and so I think the public is somewhat more accustomed to the idea that women can run foreign policy and they can make military decisions.

Mark Sokolsky 
Do you think that if Hillary Clinton is elected, she will face similar sorts of prejudices, the same sort of discourse that we're seeing now?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
You know, my hunch is that she's going to be more hawkish than Obama. And so maybe there's some insulation against charges of being too soft, in that? I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
I think one thing that distinguishes Hillary Clinton from some of the other 14 women who have run for president and indeed from the countless men who have run for president is that, by some estimates, she's the most qualified candidate to have ever run for president. So I think for her, the hurdle will be getting elected. But having already spent, you know, eight years in the White House, years in the Senate, and years as Secretary of State, I don't think she's going to face that, you know, sort of steep learning curve that pretty much every other, you know, incoming president has faced. So to my mind the getting elected part will be the tough part. And then the first few months in office, I think, would be much smoother. And I think Americans could more easily adjust to seeing her in that role based on her past experiences.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
As we're sitting here talking, the image that is coming to my mind is the picture of the inner sanctum of the Obama administration, the security team, watching the footage from the attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and Hillary is right there in the center of it fixed intently on what was going on. And I think it's a very effective image of her as an important and central player in a very important national security matter. And I'm kind of curious as to whether they're going to use that image for the campaign. I think it's a very effective reminder to people that she has sat in those seats.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
And Patrick’s, earlier question about what we know what were some common denominators and successful female candidates throughout the 20th century. And that hawkish stance is definitely the sort of a tough stance that comes to my mind. So Margaret J. Smith, was known, you know, as a first female cold warrior. So even though she presented as very feminine with a rose in her lapel and a pearl necklace, she was very, you know, hawkish and an early supporter, an ardent supporter of the Vietnam War. And then, of course, even Geraldine Ferraro who was a Democrat. Her early slogans were one tough, or I think her first campaign slogan was “Finally a Tough Democrat.” That image of tough, but feminine has served women candidates well.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
One thing that occurred to me as we were speaking, an obstacle to women, and I think this is a particular obstacle to Hillary Clinton, but also a boon to her, and that is that the husbands of female presidential candidates, I think, get more scrutiny than the wives of men. And while I mean, well, Bill Clinton certainly brought many of the things that Hillary needed to win--experience, connections, money--he also represents I think, pretty heavy baggage.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Definitely.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
And, and this is a particularly extreme case, but I do think that women candidates, their husbands matter more than the wives of men candidates, of male candidates.

Patrick Potyondy 
And speaking here of, you know, one historically important candidacy, as in Hillary Clinton's, it comes on the heels of another historically significant President Barack Obama, who was, of course elected before we ever elected a woman president. So we have a question here of why do you think it was, quote, unquote, maybe easier for Americans to elect a black president before they elected a woman president? And maybe I’d like to throw this to David first to tackle?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Yeah, it's a really good question that I don't think there's a, I don't have an easy answer to. I think that that sequence was really a function of the Democratic primary and a young candidate with a lot going for him who outran his opponent, and it wasn't a gender race thing, to me, a basic electoral equation. And so I don't…

Patrick Potyondy 
He came at the right moment for that specific race.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
With the right talents and I mean, that is much organizationally, as all of his other considerable talents. I bet easily that Clinton would have won in a race against McCain. It was just one of those races where Republicans were not going to win given the economy and the war.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
I do think there's a larger historical precedent, though, for African American males receiving rights before females, either white or black or other ethnicities. So for example, I'm thinking about the ways in which women's rights grew out of the abolition movement in the 1830s and 1840s. And in particular, the debates over the 14th and 15th Amendments, which enfranchised African American men, but not women, and how reformers, you know, for many, many years debated whether or not this was right. And many reformers argued that it should sort of be one for all, all for one, African American men and women and white women all together to sort of right what reformers saw as the wrongs of the Constitution as initially written. And that did not come to pass. So I think there is some historical precedent for our nation being more, it being easier to imagine men in terms of leadership and citizenship roles than women regardless of race.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
That's a good point. And I want to go back to the issue of military service. Historically, military service has been a very important means as a bridge for non-citizens, people without votes, to secure the ballot. It was the case for poor white men after the War of 1812. And that opened up the suffrage to Universal manhood. So the absence of women in the military, I think, bears in that issue, too.

Patrick Potyondy 
Is that maybe connected to that African Americans have often voted as a block, more so than women have voted as a block when we spoke about, you know, 1920, and afterwards?

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
Well, I mean, that is true. I just think that the circumstances in 2008, were very, very special. I think that well, the commander in chief issue, again, troubled Clinton's campaign when she was trying to appeal to the Democratic Party. You know, on the one hand, she had to be a strong foreign policy leader. But on the other hand, she had voted for the Iraq War, and most democrats opposed it, and Obama had not. So she got caught into that issue. Obama was much better organized with a net roots organizing. And I think he appealed to a powerful sense among many Americans that you know that this would be a step toward, toward racial redemption, or to, you know, getting behind the racist past of our country. And I just think he had a particular appeal that was really overwhelming. So I think that particular circumstances are probably more important than who came first, or why interested black man came first.

Mark Sokolsky 
Now, there's been a sort of backlash, right, especially in 2010, against Obama and kind of what he represents. Do you think that if Clinton wins, there will be a similar backlash?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
It's my guess that she's not going to have things easy. Yeah, I don't see. I really don't think the Democrats are going to break up the Republicans’ control of Congress. So she's going to have the same obdurate opposition, as Obama has had to face.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I think she'll have slightly better skills at working with Congress than Obama.

Patrick Potyondy 
Oh, interesting, right, because of her experience.

Mark Sokolsky 
Okay, well, when we take it in a different direction, many other countries in the world have long ago elected a female Head of State. Why has the US been relatively slower in this regard?

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
Well, first of all, I think we, we should remember how stunningly behind the United States is. You could count 15 major nations where women have been heads of state. I looked this figure up. If you look at the percentage of women in the national legislature, around the world, the United States ranked something like 97. And, you know, just in terms of female representation in in Parliament, or Congress or whatever, whatever it's called. And I think there are a lot of reasons, but one of them is our particular political system. In a parliamentary system, women do a lot better, because they have to prove themselves to us, to the party-to-party leaders. And they can do that pretty easily. They don't have huge national campaigns on television.

Mark Sokolsky
Oh, that's interesting.

Dr. Susan Hartmann
In order to win a nomination, a lot of countries have established some kind of quota system. In most of the European countries, the parties themselves say, well, a certain number of our candidates should be it should be female, or a certain many of them, it's neutral, a certain you know, certain number or a certain percentage should be male or female. I think also that in a lot of other countries, they have multi-candidate districts. So that it's not just two people running against each other for a seat in the parliament. But there'll be a district and there'll be maybe four seats or six seats, and you'll have a slate of candidates, usually proposed by the party. So the party is doing the nominating. And voters seem more likely to vote for women when they're voting for a slate when they're picking four, six or five candidates rather than one.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Just to build on what Susan was saying. I think another interesting point of contrast between the US and the EU countries in particular that might help explain or help us understand, the glaring lack of women in higher office in the US, is in addition to this sort of equity measures that other countries have put in place, other countries in the EU have maternity leave, paternity leave, state support for childcare, corporate culture of, you know, support for working mothers, working fathers. And the US really stands out globally in, you know, a huge lack of support for working parents and working women in particular. And, you know, a whole spate of books have come out recently, I'm thinking of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s work, “Overwhelmed,” “Lean In,” and that document how over time, this is a huge obstacle to women, we don't have women presidents, or as many senators or CEOs because, you know, a woman's mind is like, I’ve got to prepare for my meetings, go to Target, get the diapers. Who brought the lunch today? You know, we don't have a space or time to really grow as CEO-level or senatorial- or presidential-level candidates. When our culture or government, our corporate offices, aren't designed to help with working women and working mothers in particular to succeed and to my mind, that's a glaring contrast between the US and other nations in the world.

Mark Sokolsky 
David, you want to add anything?

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Well, all I have is a recent anecdote. So I had a group of students touring the Bundestag in late May, and we had a woman who was guiding us around. The guides there are actual employees of members of the Bundestag. So they're not docents, or, or just casual folks. And she kept needling our students about the absence of women in US government. And they got defensive enough that the student who I know is the most conservative one of the bunch said, "oh, well, it looks like we're going to have a woman president this time." So the word is out.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I also wonder about the nature of our political campaigns, and in most other countries, they're compressed, you know, they take two or three months. And then there's a tendency to focus on the issues that are being discussed, the platforms that are being defended. And I think with such long campaign periods with the huge importance of TV and the media looking for their stories, that there's just too much extra time, you know, to talk about pants suits or hairstyle.

Patrick Potyondy 
Right. Or if they're shrill when they talk, ever.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
Or in 2008, the Hillary cackle, right? So I think the nature of our campaigns probably also has something to do with it.

Patrick Potyondy 
So we'd like to ask a final question here as we move in last our last few minutes. And we kind of like to ask about where we go from here. So what one or two issues would you like to highlight as being particularly important to this election cycle? Given what we know about the history of women in American politics, what would you like our listeners to kind of go with, go away with to pay attention to here? And Kimberly, if you'd like to start us off here?

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Yeah, sure. Thank you. So I'm going to look forward and also look back, because you know, you've asked historians to prognosticate. And that's not our specialty. Right?

Patrick Potyondy 
That makes us very uncomfortable, right?

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Yeah, exactly. So in my answer, I'm hoping that the turning point that we see is a turning point in discussions of female candidates and also women in general in terms of how do we evaluate them, and especially their look. So the historical tidbit I want to leave you with is that the first Miss America Pageants were actually started in, I think it became popular, as I've argued elsewhere, as a backlash against suffrage. And so the first Miss America Pageant took off in 1921. And everyone,

Patrick Potyondy
Interesting

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin
the first Miss America was 14, her name was Margaret Corman, She's the youngest and smallest Miss America on record. She was, you know, barely five foot tall, barely 100 pounds and Samuel Gompers and everyone declared, wow, this is exactly the sort of woman America needs.

Patrick Potyondy 
Non-threatening right.

Dr. Kimberly Hamlin 
Right, exactly. And so I think it's sort of an interesting book. And in some ways, it's, you know, really fitting that our first major party female nominee is running against a man who is, among other things, a beauty pageant owner and beauty pageant impresario. So I'm sort of hoping that this can close the lid on the idea in our country that the ultimate symbol of women in America is how they look. And that the best way to evaluate women is when they are wearing their bathing suits. I'm hoping Hillary's victory will be an end to that.

Patrick Potyondy 
David and then Susan have the last word.

Dr. David Steigerwald 
Just, I agree, that's the best thing that could come out of this is the normalization of women candidates at the highest level.

Dr. Susan Hartmann 
I could only second that.

Patrick Potyondy 
Alright, great.

Mark Sokolsky 
Well, that's great. I will, we'll wrap it up on that note. Thank you to our three experts today. Kimberly Hamlin is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Miami of Ohio. Susan Hartmann, Professor of American history, at OSU and David Steigerwald, professor of history at OSU. Thanks, everyone.

Patrick Potyondy 
Thanks, everyone.

Mark Sokolsky 
This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative and the Goldberg Center and history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus in Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thanks for listening.