Ruth Mandel

Women’s Progress in Politics - Oct. 6, 1997

Ruth Mandel
October 06, 1997— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics
Print friendly

Mandel spoke at Iowa State University as the Fall 1997 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

I want to begin by thanking the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics here at Iowa State, particularly the Center's director, Dianne Bystrom, and [then] Dean Elizabeth Hoffman of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for inviting me to be the 1997-98 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics. I am deeply honored that you and others associated with this Chair -- especially Mary Louise herself -- saw fit to bring me here.

When I was asked to take on this role, I was flattered, honored, and delighted -- flattered and honored to be invited to fill any position named for and associated with Mary Louise Smith, and delighted that it would mean spending time in her company. I looked forward to enjoying her gentle, but pointed, sense of humor and getting her sensible and sensitive "take" on the news of the day. But I also wanted to watch her interact with students. She connected so effectively with young women across differences in age and political inclination, and I wanted to observe once again as she conveyed both her love of political life and her deep concern for the direction her party and her country were taking.

So it's with understandably mixed emotions that I stand here tonight on her birthday -- still greatly flattered and honored, but also acutely aware and sad that Mary Louise is not here with us in person. My memory of Mary Louise stretches back to the beginning of my own work on women and politics in the early 1970s, when I first heard about the Iowa Republican National Committeewoman who was serving her party with such dedication. Her loyalty to her party -- or at least to her vision of what it should be -- extended from those early days to the end of her life.

As an RNC member, as the history-making first woman to chair the party, and later through her work with the Republican Mainstream Committee, she never gave up in her quest to make the Republican party better -- more inclusive, more representative of the full range of its members, more responsive to what she saw as the core of Republicanism, individual rights. While she was not happy with the direction her beloved Republican party was taking in the 80s and 90s -¬ specifically with its intrusion into what she regarded as the most personal and private matters -¬ she remained the loyal opposition, working tirelessly to redirect it, to put it back on the course she believed represented its roots and its traditions.

One of my favorite images of Mary Louise comes from the documentary film, Not One of the Boys, which we produced at the Center for the American Woman and Politics. It aired on the PBS program Frontline in 1984. In the film, she is heard insisting, "I want my party back." Her firm voice and the gleam in her eye underscore her determination, and hint that she's maybe referring not just to a political organization, but also to a "party" in the other sense -- the best place to be, the center of the action. And she never wavered from encouraging and supporting new generations of women to join the "party" in both senses of the word--to come on in and help shape the future of our politics and government.

While you can speak with more authority to her place in Iowa history, I can tell you that in contemporary U.S. women's political history, Mary Louise's place is secure as a foremother, a pioneer, a first, and as an awesomely inspiring example of the best women have to offer our nation.

I've called this talk "Incrementalism Versus the Ketchup Bottle--Women's Progress in Politics."

Now what do I mean? The reference is to Ogden Nash: "Tomato ketchup in a bottle--/None will come and then the lot'll." Nash was quoted in a June 1996 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, who says that for him this "ditty...remains the most concise statement of the fundamental nonlinearity of everyday life. “Something seems to be taking place in a regular, virtually predictable rhythm, sequence or order, and then suddenly--a shift, a dramatic change.

The world was one way and then, seemingly suddenly, it is another. Gladwell's reference is to a sociological theory about which I cannot speak in detail or with authority. Arguing that mass phenomena evolve in a manner similar to biological epidemics, this view posits that change is not linear or even incremental, but that suddenly there can be a dramatic shift in behavior (whether for good or for bad) when a so-called "tipping point" is reached. According to this theory, when enough people behave in a certain way a major change takes place. No one is certain why a situation "tips," or exactly how to understand the phenomenon. But such nonlinear phenomena do appear to exist; and perhaps they offer hope that some changes which seem desirable are not destined to occur solely in incremental steps, but instead also might suddenly accelerate or tip.

What does all this have to do with women in politics? I believe that these concepts of nonlinear change offer a way for looking both backward and forward to understand U.S. women's progress in political life. For the-future, I believe that eventually, probably later rather than sooner, political life and leadership will "tip" and we will witness something like a paradigm shift in the public world. Women will be a key component of this shift, but it is not women alone (and certainly not one group of women) who will make it happen or carry it further. By going backward, let me try to explain how I come to make this statement about looking forward.

First I'm going to revisit several historical moments, and then relate them to one another in an effort to sound out a broad theme about women's progress in politics. I'll touch on some familiar moments and events which suggest when and how women were seeing themselves in political terms, what has been the tempo of change, what lies ahead. In part, this is an effort to sort out the situation today, or to suggest a location for the current position of women in U.S. politics as part of a larger historical unfolding, looking backward at what has become familiar knowledge and speculating broadly about what's ahead given the trajectory of the past. The time constraints will allow me to do little more than make a few general observations, touching only briefly (and rather superficially) on various markers along the chronological route of change.

In 1776, Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John Adams, urging him and the other lawmakers at the Second Continental Congress to "remember the ladies" when he and his compatriots are formulating laws for a new nation, and warning him that women will "foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation."

In his reply, her husband, a future American president, ridicules her request: "As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but Laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient--that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent--that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented."

Considering her request outrageous, a symptom of dangerous thinking which could lead to social disintegration, he writes to his friend James Sullivan: "Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing [distinctions based on money], will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions [italics mine], and prostrate all ranks to one common level."1

This is a useful historical moment to begin charting American women's political activism vis a vis the state and in relation to issues of inclusion and political participation. I like to cite the famous passages in Abigail and John Adams's letters because there could hardly be a more appropriate text to document both women's recognition of the injustice in their inferior status, and our founding fathers' inability to recognize the limitations in their interpretation of a vision for democracy--the contradiction between their own desire for freedom and liberty and the denial of democratic rights to others. Reflecting the cultural values and prejudices of the day, the privileged beneficiary of political rights was a male over twenty-one years old who owned property,...of course, white. The Adams letters provide a useful baseline against which to measure change over time. At the moment of its birth, the leaders of the new democracy are establishing age, gender, class and race-based restrictions on the political liberties it offers.

Seventy-two years later--we witness a dynamic shift in how women position themselves politically. In July 1848, a group of women have shot well beyond the privacy of personal correspondence in calling attention to their desire for political rights. At the first organized women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York [the 150th anniversary of which will be celebrated next year], they issued the Declaration of Sentiments, a public document modeled on the Declaration of Independence, demanding equality for women. In previous decades women had already begun to play active public and political roles by associating with the reform movements of the time, especially moral reform, abolition and temperance. Reform activists such as the well-known Grimke sisters had begun to speak out about women's rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others had lobbied the New York state legislature for married women's property rights. Nonetheless, the Seneca Falls convention came as a shock and was treated as a radical event. This was the hallmark occasion when women established a public political agenda, taking collective action on their own behalf, calling for gender rights and claiming that their demands were consistent with the vision and principles on which the nation had been founded. The most controversial demand of all appeared as Resolution number Nine of the women's Declaration--it called for the right of women to vote. It caused an uproar.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalled years later the astonishment she and the other organizers felt when, "what seemed to us so timely, so rational, and so sacred, should be a subject for sarcasm and ridicule to the entire press of the nation." In her autobiography, Stanton claims that "all the journals from Maine to Texas seemed to strive with each other to see which could make our movement appear the most ridiculous."2

Stanton singles out the anti-slavery papers as a notable exception to all the media which had ridiculed the women's rights convention. The anti-slavery papers "stood by us manfully," she writes, "and so did Frederick Douglass, both in the convention and in his paper, The North Star.“3 While the history of the decades-long struggle for women's suffrage, beginning in 1848, and America's ongoing racial struggles, first for the basic human right to freedom and later for political and civil rights for minority citizens, parallel one another and includes very complex, difficult and painful chapters in the relationships between gender and race issues, Stanton's comment reminds us again that in the evolution of American democracy women's political empowerment is inseparable from broader issues of inclusion. In his own way, John Adams knew this. In responding to Abigail's letter, John Adams immediately linked her advocacy for consideration for women to demands from "Indians" and "Negroes," among others.

The Founding Fathers of the American experiment dreamed a great and daring dream; but when they awoke to apply it, they started small, leaving it to the rest of us who also came to inhabit this country of rich variety to struggle, sometimes with one another, as we pressed forward to match up their inspirational original vision to a bigger, more generous reality.

Another seventy-two years later marks another historic milestone or dynamic-shift moment in women's political progress. On August 26, 1920--seventy-two years after the outcry caused by Resolution Nine of the Declaration of Sentiments at the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls--the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and added to the Constitution. It gave women the right to vote. The long struggle for suffrage took place through many defining moments and times of change in American society. The states fought a Civil War and the nation fought the Spanish American War and a World War during those decades. Two American presidents--Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley--were assassinated. Slavery was abolished, and black males were enfranchised under the Fourteenth Amendment. An industrial economy and urban life loomed larger and larger relative to an agrarian economy and rural life. Huge waves of immigration, primarily (but not exclusively) from Europe, made the population more heterogeneous. Progressive movements were active on behalf of peace, free speech, workers' rights and trade unions, child labor laws, anti-lynching laws, birth control and other social reforms. The world in which women finally won the right to vote was quite different from the world in which the demand was first made; and it was radically different from the world in which John Adams had viewed the franchise as proper only for a select group of male land owners. The fight to abolish slavery and the debates over giving the vote to African American men and making full citizens of immigrant men are inseparable from the history of women's struggle to be included in the voting electorate. The opportunities for women to help mold the society as part of its electorate were both derived from and conditioned by all the changes which had reshaped it up to that point, not least among them a much more diverse enfranchised citizenry. The measure of progress in the development of American democracy has been determined by the changing (political status) of the nation's women and minorities.

Not unreasonably, those who opposed female suffrage, as well as those who fought for it, expected that once enfranchised, women would vote. Suffrage opponents had feared that women would vote differently. Their nightmare image envisioned hordes of women flooding the polls and casting ballots differently from men. We all know that did not happen. At least not then.

Women went to vote in small numbers at first. Then in slightly larger numbers. As the years went by, more women showed up at the polls. Incrementally, women and men adjusted and society reeducated itself about what constitutes the polity. As new generations grew up in a society of universal suffrage, as more women entered the educational system at higher levels and the economy as a growing part of the labor force, altered notions about women's proper roles as public citizens gained currency. It took over forty years (until 1964) for the number of female voters to exceed the number of male voters in presidential elections. But because there are more women in the population than men, the two sexes voting in equal numbers did not mean equal participation. By the 1980 presidential elections--just yesterday--the proportion of women voting did begin to exceed the proportion of male voters. With more women in the population, and with women voting at slightly higher rates than men, in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential elections roughly seven million more women than men went to the polls each election day. And since 1986, when women outvoted men for the first time in a nonpresidential election year, a higher proportion of women than men have voted in all national elections.

In 1980 something else happened. Not only did women vote at the same rates as men, but for the first time in presidential elections, women also voted significantly differently from men. The "gender gap," discovered and named after the 1980 presidential elections, referred to a statistically significant difference in the voting preferences of women and men.4

Women's clout as voters--their numbers, their voting rates, and their distinctive candidate, policy and partisan preferences-- is now perceived to be so substantial that during the 1996 presidential election season candidates, political parties, nominating conventions, pollsters, and campaign advertisements paid extraordinary attention to appealing to the female electorate.

But so far, I consider these developments--that is, the increase in women's voting behavior over the decades and all the attention women have gained through the recognition of a gender gap in voting--as part of an incremental, evolutionary pattern of expansion and impact in female political participation. Nothing has really "tipped" yet. In a business-as-usual political world, men who dominate the critical power centers and political institutions and who control virtually all the major leadership positions in government are tinkering at the margins with an adjusted political rhetoric appealing to various groupings of women, the desired net effect of which would be to gain women's acquiescence for maintaining themselves in power. Yes, there is progress or accommodation. No, there is not a transformation in who leads and who wields power in the society. Women are not yet true partners in the leadership of this country.

Necessary but not sufficient, suffrage for women has been only part of the recipe for full political participation. Enfranchisement would have to be complemented by empowerment to complete the process. With the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and with the call for women in politics beginning in the early 1970s, contemporary feminists brought to center stage issues of control and power--expanded choices and control over one's own life and immediate circumstances; power in one's own right in the larger society, particularly in government and politics. In addition to the privilege of voting to support the system and elect men to run it, women now began the push to take a hand in running the system. Empowerment meant women representing themselves and their own interests as they defined them rather than relying exclusively on men to represent them.

Back to my chronological mileposts. Coincidentally, the span of seventy-two years is once again convenient for reviewing key moments in the history of women's political progress. Just seventy-two years after passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the country came to call 1992 the "Year of the Woman." Even if one dismisses that designation as oversimplified media hype, it did call attention to an election year in which women who were prepared to take advantage of some unusual political opportunities, especially a large number of open seats, made unprecedented gains in the U.S. Congress, doubling their numbers and increasing their presence to ten percent of the House and adding four more women to the lonely two to comprise six percent of the Senate. The point here is not the 47 women elected to the House [50 in late 1997] or the six women seated in the Senate after the 1992 elections [9 in 1997] -- these numbers were still startlingly low as a measure of women's inclusion in the national legislature of these United States near the end of the twentieth century. 5 What is noteworthy about 1992 is that after more than two decades of feminist activism to empower women politically, female candidates across the country were positioned and prepared to make a move on the higher levels, levels where their numbers had been static for the twenty previous years. They were so ready and so well positioned precisely because they had been moving in and moving up, public office by public office, election season by election season throughout a full generation of change spearheaded by organized feminism. That period had witnessed increases in the numbers of women seeking and winning elective offices and appointed to offices throughout the political system.

The movement of women into state legislatures exemplified the extent of change taking place at all but the top levels of political power: between 1971 and 1993, the number of women legislators nationally increased from 344 or 4.5 percent of all legislators to 1524 or 20.5 percent of all legislators. By 1992, legislators and others who had acquired political credentials constituted an experienced, expanding pool of candidates for Congress. In this context, the "Year of the Woman" was about women in 1992 taking another incremental step in their political empowerment (admittedly, an important and highly visible step).As was the case in the period between 1848 and 1920 when many world-altering events reshaped the context in which American women were fighting for suffrage, so too in the period between1920 and 1992 (and until today) forces of seismic enormity have been causally and integrally linked to the changes in women's lives and their place in the public world. Today's world does not resemble the one in which women won the vote. That happened before the Great Depression, World War II, the atom bomb, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the automobile age, aviation and space travel, the phone and the television, the Pill, suburbia, the Sixties, the mall society, electronic technology, the Internet, the global economy, and so much more.

In a recent New York Times Book Review (August 11, 1996) article about Stranger Among Friends, a memoir by David Mixner, the long-time political activist and gay rights leader, the reviewer, Martin Walker [U.S. bureau chief for the British newspaper, The Guardian], states: ...we shall someday look back at the last 40 years and acknowledge that the politics of our time were shaped by four great and insistent forces that welled up from the people and imposed their urgency upon our public life. Less than revolutions, more than campaigns, they have been given a special common name--"movement": the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's movement and...the gay and lesbian movement.

These inextricably interrelated "movements" of the last four decades have had a profound impact on American political culture. Vital linkages between the anti-slavery movement and the 19th century women's rights movement have been recognized for some time, as has the influence of the mid-20th century civil rights movement on the development of modern feminism, and that of modern feminism on the gay and lesbian movement. So, too, the future of women's political progress is inseparable from national and also global demographic and economic trends. As the progress—the enfranchisement and empowerment—of women in politics continues to play out the scenario which has been unfolding for the length of our national history, its post-incremental phase will emerge within the context of a reshaped democracy.

I do not know how the "next phase world" will function, but I do imagine how it will/should be constituted. It will not resemble the vast photo history of leaders lined up for the group shot-¬ row upon row of similar looking men. It will look like a colorful mixture of different sorts of people [not unlike our students on campuses today] (races, cultures, religions, genders, styles, ages), uninterested in denying their differences, implicitly recognizing that to survive and to thrive as a community (at whatever level that is constituted), their commonalities of interest connect them and compel them to act together to further common objectives.

We can conclude from witnessing history that, in general, democratic societies are better for more people; that notwithstanding the difficult challenges encountered by heterogeneous, multicultural societies which attempt to function as unified political and economic entities, steps toward inclusion result in more constructive and positive prognoses for the future of the larger society, and steps toward enfranchising and empowering people are positive steps for the societies in which they occur. Outside our borders, we have only to look at the genocidal brutalities of the twentieth century to witness the results, on the one side, of elevating differences among human beings as signs of superiority or, conversely, of defining differences as attributes of inferiority.

On the more uplifting side, South Africa has given the world reason to hope that inclusion, enfranchisement and empowerment work for the greater good in a multiracial society. At home we have early but compelling evidence that taking women into account as voters and counting women among the nation's roster of elected and appointed officials has brought new issues and new perspectives to our political discourse and to the public agenda. As voters and as elected officials, women of color have made an even more distinctive impact in the political world. The richer the mix, the more the difference in impact. The richer the mix, the closer the parallels between who the people are and what those who represent them believe, say and even do.

Does heterogeneous democracy spawn new problems for governing, for practicing politics in a nation of differences?

Absolutely. It spawns all the problems John Adams envisioned in his nightmare scenario, especially his fear that old distinctions would be confounded and destroyed. But these new problems (or opportunities) are what is next, what is corning over the horizon. They are the exciting problems vital to address in an increasingly globalized, inevitably more variegated, diverse world. There was one set of problems keeping out and keeping down everyone who was not a male property owner over twenty-one years old. There are other problems letting in and letting rise all the messy multitudes. But they are humanity. We are they. And we are all of us challenged to recognize our differences with respect and to seek out the commonalities which bind us together in the enterprise of enriching the democracy.

Women are only one element -- a large one, distinctive in its ways and also similar to others moving forward but formerly excluded or marginalized with reference to political and economic power—women are only one element in this vast tipping point or paradigm shift that is corning. What we are doing now incrementally and what other groupings of people are doing incrementally, in tandem with one another, sometimes interlocking, at times moving more separately, all lays a groundwork, all is essential to ultimate change. And then something will happen. It will happen, and everything that has taken place before it will have been part of its happening or essential for dealing with the change. And then something new will begin, a next stage. A new set of perplexities and challenges to our human ingenuity and spirit will have been brought to us in part by women's leadership _- largely or historically a hidden, unrecognized leadership, but one which has been fomenting change since the time of Abigail Adams and the birth of the nation.

  1. Quoted in Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers (New York: Bantam Books, 1974), pp. 10-15.
  2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 (New York: Schocken books, 1971); p. 149.
  3. Stanton, p.149.
  4. While here I am discussing the gender gap in voting behavior, the term also refers to: (1) a difference between men and women in party identification, with women more likely than men to call themselves Democrats and less likely than men to call themselves Republicans; (2) a difference between women and men in the performance ratings of presidents since 1980, with women consistently less approving than men of Presidents Reagan and Bush, and far more frequently more approving than men of President Clinton's performance; (3) a difference between women and men in attitudes toward various public policy issues.
  5. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, running as an Independent in 1866, was the first woman to run for a seat in the United States Congress, garnering all of 24 votes out of 12,000 cast, decades before women won the right to vote in national elections (source: Notable American Women 1607¬-1950).