Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Women and Politics

Historian Mary C. Brennan recently posted an interesting commentary on the History News Network site devoted to discussing how politicians, and especially (although certainly not exclusively) conservatives and Republican politicians, have been eager to use wives and women as symbols of motherhood, domesticity and family values.  As she points out, this usage has not been historically static (see the activist roles played by Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt before this trend accelerated in the tumultuous years of the '60s and '70s)--nor has it reflected the true range of female participation in the body politic.

Indeed, as Brennan alludes to and as she and many others have demonstrated in greater detail elsewhere, women were foundational to the growth and development of the postwar conservative movement precisely because they were willing to overstep the boundaries of home and family to become fervent advocates of political causes in which they believed.  In a reflection of the complexity of the time--and of life in general--many times they rationalized their activism in the context of their roles as wives and mothers.  Certainly this was nothing new (see Adams, Abigail, et. al.).  But it was women who organized much of the anticommunist agitation of the 1950s and '60s (Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors [ 2001] remains the outstanding exposition of this trend).  It was women who were mobilized--and in turn mobilized each other--as single-issue campaigns became the heart of conservative activism in the 1970s.

Furthermore, as Catherine Rymph describes in her Republican Women (2006) and I have found in my own research, women have formed the backbone of campaign apparatus since long before the rise of second wave feminism in the 1960s.  I came across a particularly interesting case in the story of Jean Young, a Republican activist in Oregon from the 1940s through her death in 1992 who was active in fields ranging from education and the state wage-and-hour commission to electoral reform.  She was a longtime vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County GOP, a state-level party official, a delegate to numerous Republican National Conventions and a tireless campaigner on behalf of candidates for local and state office.

Young was not an ideologue; rather, she was a party loyalist.  Even GOP maverick Tom McCall, Oregon's governor in the late '60s and early '70s, earned her support.  Intriguingly, however, it was in 1970 that she encountered the limits of political organizing.  Young was placed in charge of a "Women for McCall 70 Club" charged with entering a new realm of female Republican politicking: fundraising. Women had accepted the responsibility of voting wholeheartedly, she told her putative supporters; women outpolled men by two million voters in 1968.  Women were, however, lacking in another area of political responsibility: fundraising.  "I hope that we can show the men of the Party that we women can do other things that count beside fold letters and lick stamps," she told a colleague.  Unfortunately, however, Women for McCall 70 raised only about $7,500 of its $28,000 goal. (1)

With Women for McCall 70, Young came up against a significant limitation to women's organizational prowess: money.  Soliciting donors from the community of women activists ran up against the realities of female political voluntarism.  Without income, women could fold the letters and lick the stamps; they could not write the checks.

The question, however, remains: which is more important, funding or activism?  In our money-driven political system it is easy to answer "funding."  The story of political activism, and conservative political activism in particular, however, seems to indicate that the answer may not be so clear-cut.  Young failed in her fundraising endeavor, but she and many thousands of party loyalists like her--and their ideologue counterparts--played a pivotal role in determining the agenda and the success of countless campaigns around the country.

On NPR this morning I caught a quick snippet of a story about how contemporary campaigns are having a difficult time recruiting student activists in light of the poor economy and students' preoccupations with survival and jobs post-graduation.  Meanwhile, some of the female networks that earlier provided the legwork for political campaigns have evaporated in the reality of two-income families and over-scheduled lives.  Have we created a vacuum for funding to take precedence?  What does this spell for our future?  If we are unhappy with such an outcome, how might it be altered?  The answers are not clear-cut, but the historical context provides important ballast to the debate.

(1) Undated [c. 1970] form letter from Jean Young, box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; August 6, 1970 letter from Young to "Tip," box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; "Keep Oregon, Oregon.  Keep Tom McCall" Newsletter, September 18, 1970, box 1, folder "McCall 1970"; all Jean Young Papers, Mss 1863, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.

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