Journalists and data junkies alike are gleefully dissecting the gender gap and what it potentially means for the mid-term elections generally and the political fortunes of women specifically. Number-cruncher extraordinaire, FiveThirtyEight, labelled the 2018 midterm election as “potentially record-breaking,” noting that women are poised to gain 100 Congressional seats this year. If they win, there will be 100 women in the House, and 24 in the Senate come January 2019.
From the Washington Post.
Let’s put this figure into context. According to the Washington Post, there are 1,977 women in power across governorships, congressional seats, and state legislative seats. This means that 2,006 more women would need to win races for them to reach equal representation in political offices. There’s a long way to go before we see anything close to gender parity in American politics.
If we recognize that this yawning gender gap exists in the U.S. and acknowledge that this midterm election isn’t going to fundamentally alter this reality, we can effectively push back against the tagline that Donald Trump’s crass statements and hardline policies have rallied unprecedented numbers of women. Don’t get me wrong. Trump has certainly stoked enough moral outrage to effectively move some folks from their armchairs into the world of bare-knuckle politics. The point here is that the mainstream narrative reinforces gender stereotypes about when and how women engage politically. I find this personally annoying for three reasons.
First, it diminishes women’s political engagement throughout American history.
Crediting Trump for the uptick in women’s willingness to participate and run for political office diminishes women’s political engagement throughout American history. In her excellent book on women in the labor movement, Dorothy Sue Cobble (2004: 5) reminds us that “the dearth of women in formal, publicly visible roles should not necessarily be taken as an indication of female powerlessness or lack of influence.” History is rife with examples of women leading the charge for (and participating in) movements – Sarah G. Bagley (Lowell Female Labor Reform Association), Barbara Gittings (New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis), Dolores Huerta (National Farm Workers Association), and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi (Black Lives Matter) to name a few. Women played a critical role in movements well before they gained the right to vote. In the 1850s, women advocating on behalf of prohibition regarded men’s political will to abolish the sale of alcohol – then regarded as major cause of America’s social problems including poverty, crime, and violence – as unreliable and took matters into their own hands, raiding saloons and liquor dealers and destroying their stock. And, social movement participation is but one type of political engagement.
Second, it reinforces the idea that women only get involved when women’s issues are on the political chopping block.
Narratives that herald women’s engagement as a new phenomenon reinforces the notion that women only engage on so-called women’s issue (e.g., reproductive issues). It is fallacious to assume that women primarily engage when they feel as though their bodies or “special” status as women is threatened. Consider the work done by Kristen Goss and Dana Fisher, both of whom have tracked women’s visible political engagement. The table below summarizes some of their findings regarding the gender, race, and age makeup of select protests between 2000 and 2018. Notice that women are well represented and that these protests are not just about women’s issues.
Sure. Social scientists find that there are differences between men and women regarding their types of participation. However, scholars also find that these differences reflect broader gender inequalities. For example, in their cross-national analysis, Hilde Coffé and Catherine Bolzendahl (2010) find that women, on average, are significantly more likely than men to engage in private activism such as signing petitions, boycotting/buying products for political reasons, and donating/raising money for social/political groups. They suggest, among other reasons, that this “private activism” is easier for women to incorporate into their busy lives, which typically includes work and family obligations. This reality obscured in the contemporary narrative.
Note: These data are from Goss, Kristin A. 2003. “Rethinking the Political Participation Paradigm.” Women & Politics 25(4):83-118 and Dana Fisher (2018), American Resistance, www.americanresistancebook.com.
Finally, it puts the onus on women to change American politics from the inside out.
The narrative that Trump is pushing women to seek office inherently assumes that women will be able to change political institutions from the inside out. This is a problematic (and stereotypical) assumption at best because it assumes that women will act differently than men once in office. Don’t get me wrong. Having more women in office would be beneficial, especially if these women represent different kinds of life experiences (meaning they’re not just white, heterosexual, and upper class). Diversity makes institutions of all kinds stronger. The point here is that in our divided political climate it is unrealistic to expect our elected officials, regardless of gender, to do little more than continue the mudslinging across the partisan divide. Assuming that women come into office and clean up the mess that largely men have made over the last several decades strikes me as incredibly naïve.
Journalists covering the 2018 mid-term elections enjoy spinning out narratives about women’s heightened engagement as an angry response to Trump’s ascension to the White House. However, like most narratives involving political engagement, it obscures more than it reveals. In this case, it is critical that we remind journalists, our students, and ourselves, that these narratives do not capture women’s political contributions and that they reinforce gender stereotypes about women’s engagement, female politicians, and their ability to clean up the huge mess our (largely male) representatives have made.