In the conclusion to our 3-part series, we question: Is the future really female? As we head into a fierce presidential election, in a nation roiled by a pandemic and protests over police brutality, we look at the role women are playing as candidates and voters. Our guests include Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics; Joanna Weiss of Women for American Values and Ethics; author Molly Ball of the new “Pelosi” biography; Ronnee Schreiber of San Diego State University; and Glynda Carr of Higher Heights.
Check out the entire 100 Years of Power project to learn more about women’s history, like you’ve never heard it.
More in this series
100 Years of Power, Part 1: Battle for Suffrage
How Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led a rancorous fight, at times at odds with Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth. With historian Ellen DuBois.
100 Years of Power, Part 2: Slow Burn of Progress
From Eleanor Roosevelt to Shirley Chisholm, women begin to win control over their lives and bodies. With historians Susan Ware and Gina Lauria Walker and advocate Nell Merlino.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
SUE: You're listening to 100 Years of Power...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...100 Years of Power...
COLLEEN: You're listening to 100 Years of Power from The Story Exchange, where we look to history to understand how far women have come —
SUE: — and how far we still need to go.
COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I'm Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: In the runup to the 2020 presidential election, six Democratic candidates stepped into the national spotlight.
SUE: Each one had different policy ideas.
COLLEEN: Each deployed a distinctive way of appealing to American voters.
SUE: And each earned their own memorable spoofs on Saturday Night Live...
SNL ACTOR: Who can beat Donald Trump?
SNL ACTOR AS ELIZABETH WARREN: Oh, me, me, me! My hand went up first.
CORINNE: And the six were all women. It was historic!
COLLEEN: That's our reporter Corinne Lestch.
CORINNE: I think there was a real hunger to see a women in the White House, especially after Hillary Clinton lost.
SUE: The unprecedented number of women running for president —
COLLEEN: — from Elizabeth Warren to Kamala Harris —
SUE: — came on the heels of the 2018 midterm elections —
CORINNE: — where there were also a lot of firsts for women: the first Native American women in Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids...
COLLEEN: ...the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar...
SUE: ...and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress...
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Hello Bronx and Queens, my name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I am running to be your next Congresswoman.
COLLEEN: But back to the 2020 presidential candidates.
KELLY DITTMAR: At the end of the day, obviously, voters didn’t buy in.
CORINNE: That's Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics.
COLLEEN: It's a nonpartisan think tank at Rutgers University.
DITTMAR: They still had these doubts about women's electability. But I do think it pushes the needle.
CORINNE: Depending on how you look at it, that needle has moved A LOT, or not nearly enough, since 1920, when women won the right to vote.
DITTMAR: I always say that American politics is really stubborn. And what I mean by that is, it's hard to change. Particularly the presidency is arguably the most masculine political institution in American politics.
COLLEEN: In Part One of this podcast — give it a listen if you haven't — we talked about the bitter struggle for the vote. In Part Two, we looked at the slow burn of women's progress since 1920. Today, in this third and final podcast, we explore what the future holds.
CORINNE: According to Kelly Dittmar, there's been points of progress, especially recently, that we shouldn't ignore.
DITTMAR: I think we've seen institutional disruption and change.
CORINNE: The six women who ran for president, for instance, were diverse in terms of race and ethnic makeup — from white Midwesterner Amy Klobuchar...
COLLEEN: Here she is on MSNBC.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: I'm someone from the middle of the country.
CORINNE: ...to Tulsi Gabbard, born in American Samoa, who represents Hawaii.
COLLEEN: And here she is on CNN.
TULSI GABBARD: “Aloha” really means we recognize each other as brothers and sisters.
DITTMAR: When women have entered our political institutions, particularly as candidates and office holders, they have challenged the masculine dominance, the white dominance, in these institutions in ways that allow for not only more women, and more diverse women, to see themselves in that role — and therefore, run for office and be successful — but also change the institution for the better.
CORINNE: I asked Dittmar to talk about the “modern-day resisters” — the grassroots activists, scholars and contemporary feminists — who are pushing the needle even further.
CORINNE (FROM ZOOM): Who's still taking on this fight and leading it?
DITTMAR: I think what we learned from both the suffrage movement itself and the way in which the history of suffrage was written, is that there were huge divisions, many of them along racial lines in the suffrage movement, but also among class lines. When we think about modern day mobilization and activism among women as voters or as activists, we have to be comfortable with the mess.
CORINNE: In other words...
DITTMAR: There isn't a singular leader or even a singular group that's sort of leading the way in fighting for women's empowerment in politics or in policy.
CORINNE: But Dittmar says that's something we should embrace.
DITTMAR: What we have to be comfortable with is the fact that women across diverse communities are working to be sure that their voices and their experiences are part of all of this work.
CORINNE: That's messy, of course.
DITTMAR: But I actually think it's much truer to what is happening, and we should celebrate that instead of be worried that this is a disparate movement. That's, in fact, probably making all this work stronger.
CORINNE: The pressure is on — even for men in positions of power.
JOE BIDEN: if I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration, will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a — I’d pick a woman to be vice president.
JOANNA WEISS: Joe Biden's promise is really heartening to us.
CORINNE: That's Joanna Weiss.
WEISS: I'm president and founder of Women for American Values and Ethics, or WAVE.
CORINNE: Her organization, based out of Orange County, California, works to get progressives into office.
WEISS: We believe the trajectory of America is kind of following the wrong path right now, for true American values that support inclusivity, equity, fairness.
CORINNE: WAVE is actually non-partisan.
WEISS: A lot of Republicans in Orange County feel that the party has left them. The national platform doesn't recognize LGBTQ rights, it doesn't recognize a woman's right to choose, doesn't recognize the human impact on climate change...
CORINNE: I asked her about Biden's pledge.
WEISS: We feel like that is finally getting a woman in the White House.
CORINNE: Biden is already 77 years old, making his VP pick all the more critical.
WEISS: She will obviously be the presumptive nominee in as early as 2024, perhaps. So we're cautiously optimistic that we will see, very soon, a woman in the White House, finally. First as a VP and then hopefully four years, and not more than eight years later, as the president.
CORINNE: According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women have cast almost 10 million more votes than men in recent elections. And the makeup of women in our legislature has increased — there are now 127 women in Congress, 47 of them women of color. But Weiss said she still sees discrimination.
WEISS: As women, I think we are still out there fighting for ourselves. I think the impact of the right to vote — we still do not have the representation that we need in order to have women's voices truly heard.
CORINNE: But she is encouraged by the range of female voices in the fold.
COLLEEN: Did she name anyone in particular?
CORINNE: She did...
WEISS: I think people like Katie Porter, being a single mom in Congress, that's really important. And so our members are just as happy to advocate for her as they are for anyone.
COLLEEN: Listeners may remember Katie Porter, freshman Democrat from California, as the one who pushed CDC Director Robert Redfield for free coronavirus testing.
CORINNE: Here's a clip of that, from back in March.
KATIE PORTER: ...using that existing authority to pay for diagnostic testing, free to every American regardless of insurance?
ROBERT REDFIELD: Well, I can say that we are going to do everything to make sure they get the care they need —
PORTER: No, not good enough. Reclaiming my time.
COLLEEN: Katie Porter, by the way, is not only a single mom in Congress — she is the only single mom in Congress.
CORINNE: Weiss's organization is busy training a new wave of activists —
WEISS: Political neophytes.
CORINNE: — about advocacy methods in the time of coronavirus.
WEISS: There'll be plenty of digital opportunities or virtual opportunities for engagement.
CORINNE: She also talked about passing the torch to her teenage children and their peers.
WEISS: The next generation, particularly Gen Z, are really good at understanding the closeness of everyone in the world. So I think their tolerance for diversity and inclusion is much stronger than any generation prior. I think they don't understand discrimination because they see no point to it. They have friends and people they respect in all industries, in all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, gender identification, sexual preferences. I think our kids get it a lot more than their parents do in some ways.
COLLEEN: We'll be right back, after a brief break.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
SIMONE SWERSKY: Hi, my name is Simone Swersky and I turned 18 this year, so I will be voting. This is the centennial. It’s been only 100 years of women being allowed to vote. So it’s such a privilege, because not everyone who’s allowed to vote is able to. And so if I have the ability to make a choice that can change the future in whatever small way it can, then I think it’s my duty to do that. You’re listening to 100 Years of Power from The Story Exchange.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
COLLEEN: Welcome back. I want to reintroduce now, our producer Victoria Flexner —
VICTORIA: Hey Colleen.
COLLEEN: — who brought us the first two episodes of this podcast. So, we still haven't had a female president and we won't have one this election.
VICTORIA: That's right.
COLLEEN: So, where does that leave us, in terms of women's progress, 100 years since women got the right to vote?
VICTORIA: Well, let's not forget — we do have a very powerful woman in Congress, and that's the first woman Speaker of the House...
MOLLY BALL: ...Nancy Pelosi.
VICTORIA: That’s Molly Ball.
BALL: I am the National Political Correspondent for Time Magazine.
VICTORIA: She’s also the author of the new biography, Pelosi, about, well, Nancy Pelosi.
BALL: The Speaker of the House is the leader of the lower house of the bicameral Congress, elected by all of the members of the House. If the president and vice president are both disabled in some way, the Speaker of the House would assume the Oval Office.
VICTORIA: Meaning, she is the most powerful woman in American politics today. And in terms of elected office, Nancy Pelosi is arguably the most powerful woman in American political history. Let that sink in for a second.
NANCY PELOSI: We cannot settle for anything less than transformative structural change.
VICTORIA: That's Nancy Pelosi in June, speaking about police reform after the murder of George Floyd.
COLLEEN: And what did Molly Ball say Nancy Pelosi is like? I mean, obviously we all know who she is, but I feel like we know very little about her as a person.
VICTORIA: Yeah, I was really curious to find out more about this too.
VICTORIA (FROM ZOOM): What was it like spending time with her?
BALL: I talk in the book about her being a slightly remote and impenetrable figure. And that's true, even to people who have spent years working closely with her, people who consider themselves personal friends of hers. There's a feeling that you never quite...that even though there are obviously depths there, nobody really gets underneath that surface. Often a good way to get people to engage is to ask them what they think about the way they're perceived. She just doesn't engage with that at all. She's — “I'm just not interested.” It's just a different personality than a lot of politicians, especially because politicians tend to be so self-obsessed and so interested in perception, and she's not wired that way.
VICTORIA: This got me thinking — maybe you have to be wired a different way to be a female trailblazer in politics.
BALL: She describes herself as a sort of accidental politician, someone who never wanted to run for office, but was sort of dragged into it. When I first started writing about her, I was very skeptical of this claim. Politicians sort of have to deny that they're as ambitious as they are, but they're obviously ambitious or they wouldn't be there. And so I looked around a lot in her past for some indication that actually she was plotting and strategizing all along. But in fact, there are a lot of points in her career as a fundraiser and party operative and political volunteer where people encouraged her to run for office, and she said no.
VICTORIA: That changed when Pelosi’s friend Sala Burton...
COLLEEN: ...who was the representative from California’s 5th district in the 1980s...
VICTORIA: ...she was dying of cancer and extracted a deathbed promise that Pelosi would run for her seat.
BALL: And then once she got there, she didn't immediately start trying to climb the leadership ladder either. She was more focused on getting on the most interesting committees and doing the most important legislative work.
VICTORIA: And Pelosi has been vocal about not wanting to advance her position beyond the House, which might seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually strategic. She’s always said no to running for the Senate or governor. And she made it pretty clear she’s not interested in being vice president.
BALL: And that adds to her power a lot, because it means that people know that she's not trying to build her resume. That's not one of her goals. Her only goal is doing this job as well as she possibly can.
VICTORIA: No matter what you may think of Pelosi, after three decades in Congress, she has proven to be a master legislator.
BALL: The moving of legislation through this large and unruly legislative body is really her skillset. One of her former aides said something to me that has always been a sort of Nancy Pelosi Rosetta Stone for me. He said, “Everything Nancy Pelosi does is motivated by this combination of obligation and confidence.” You could even call it entitlement. She looks at the situation and she says, “Well, somebody's got to do something, and I'm the one who can do it. I'm the only one who can do it, or I'm the one who can do it best.”
VICTORIA: There’s definitely a palpable confidence there that’s different from male political machismo.
BALL: You don't want to get on her bad side.
VICTORIA: Here’s Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra speaking on CNN about how her mother approaches meetings with President Trump.
ALEXANDRA PELOSI: She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding. (laughter from news anchors) That's all you need to know about her.
VICTORIA: But we have to remember that...
BALL: ...when Nancy Pelosi got to Congress in 1987, in the 435-member House of Representatives, there were 23 women. 33 years later, we just reached 100.
VICTORIA: Yeah, even today only 25% of Congress is female.
BALL: We have to train women, we have to empower women, we have to drag them kicking and screaming into the political process. For whatever reason, it wasn't something that a large number of women felt galvanized to do until 2016. It was called the pipeline problem. This idea that because women don't run for office at the lower levels, then when it comes time for higher office, whether you're talking about the president, Speaker of the House, the governor, the member of Congress or senator, there aren't women who've built up the conventional resume that are ready for that.
VICTORIA (FROM ZOOM): What does her position as Speaker of the House mean for women?
BALL: Well, one thing it means is just that now, there's been a woman Speaker of the House. Now — I don't know how many little girls aspire to be Speaker of the House. I've heard from a few of them. But now they have someone to look up to, quite literally. Just like so many people talked about with Hillary Clinton, little girls looking and saying to their mommys, like, “A woman can be president.” Now there's proof.
VICTORIA: Going back to what Nell Merlino, founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, echoed in Episode Two of this podcast...
NELL MERLINO: If you can see yourself, if you can see it, you can be it.
BALL: Politics is about perception. It just was so striking to me how much of the conversation about Pelosi was about the way she was perceived as opposed to the things she actually did. A powerful woman seems always to be judged; not for what she's done, but for how she makes people feel.
COLLEEN: We'll be right back.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
NATALIE CHEN: Hi, my name is Natalie Chen. I’m from Taiwan, where we protect ourselves from China through our vote. And I now live in Brooklyn, New York. I got my U.S. citizenship in 2018. Soon after that, I voted for a New York local election. And I remember it was a mixed sensation of joy and overwhelming nervousness. We as citizens must take accountability for the votes we cast. Only then, the society can be truly healed and transformed as a whole — the people’s voices through democracy. You’re listening to 100 Years of Power from The Story Exchange.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
COLLEEN: We're back. I'm Colleen DeBaise.
CORINNE: I'm Corinne Lestch.
COLLEEN: So let's look ahead to what is sure to be one of the most unusual and gripping elections in U.S. history.
RONNEE SCHREIBER: Between the pandemic and the rampant racism that's going on in this society...
CORINNE: That's Ronnee Schreiber, a professor of Political Science at San Diego State University.
SCHREIBER: ...but I do worry about the voter turnout during the pandemic and people being scared. And that's November, when there's probably going to be another wave of cases. The push for mail-in voting is a really, really important one.
CORINNE: Republicans have said they don’t like the idea.
SCHREIBER: I think the people who feel more comfortable in the public and doing things tend to be more conservative. So it could affect the extent to which voters turn out. So that's part of the reason that the call for mail-in ballots is being opposed by Republicans.
CORINNE: While Schreiber has published a book about conservative women in politics, she said most of her young students tend to be liberal — but they take for granted the freedoms that were hard fought and won by previous generations.
SCHREIBER: They've grown up with the right to abortion, right, for example. My students are actually sometimes floored at the thought that they could lose the right to abortion.
CORINNE: Which is a real possibility...
SCHREIBER: I'm like, “We're one Supreme Court Justice away from that. We got to keep Ruth Bader Ginsburg alive.”
PROTESTERS SOT: (chanting) Say his name! George Floyd! No justice, no peace!
COLLEEN: The events that have roiled the country this past year will likely be a mobilizing force in November.
PROTESTERS SOT: (chanting) Black Lives Matter!
CORINNE: One group that has seldom needed to be convinced of that is African American women, who have been a consistent voting bloc for Democrats for years.
GLYNDA CARR: We find ourselves, in 2020, everybody vying for Black women's votes and attention.
CORINNE: That's Glynda Carr — she’s the founder of Higher Heights, a political action committee behind the #BlackWomenVote campaign.
CARR: So Higher Heights was born in a Brooklyn cafe right after the 2010 midterm elections.
CORINNE: She says there has been a noticeable shift in the way campaigns and candidates approach the same voters her organization is trying to get into office.
CARR: Oftentimes we will talk about, “candidates take African American votes for granted.” Most African Americans identify as Democrats, and so the historical narrative about how candidates reach out to African American voters, particularly Black women, is: they knock on our doors, 14 days before an election cycle, like, “Hey, by the way, there's an election.” And I think in 2020, what you'll see is that Black women are demanding a return on our voting investment, and that's in the form of policies that directly impact Black women, our families and our communities. No longer can candidates just assume we're going to come out and, frankly, organize our networks to vote.
CORINNE: While it remains to be seen who will turn out for Biden —
COLLEEN: — and who will stick with Trump —
CORINNE: — if history is any lesson, women will demand that their voices be heard, no matter how dire or difficult the reality.
CARR: I think women are going to be the architects of not only our democracy, but of the redesign of our democracy 100 years in the making from the 19th Amendment. And I believe that women have always been the defenders of our homes, we’ve been the defenders of our communities, and we will continue to be the defenders of our democracy.
SUE: When we first started talking about doing this series to mark the 100th anniversary, back in January —
COLLEEN: — a lifetime and a pandemic ago —
SUE: — it looked like we would drop these podcasts in the middle of a conventional election campaign.
VICTORIA: As conventional as it could be, given the current occupant of the White House.
COLLEEN: There was a possibility that a woman might be the Democratic candidate.
SUE: But no; it is a race that turns out, as it usually does, between two white men.
COLLEEN: But IS the goal a woman president? The goal surely is just real equality.
SUE: Well, going back to the goals of the first suffragists — it was at least to have control of our lives and our bodies.
VICTORIA: And, as we have seen, much has been achieved, but there is still so far to go. At least in this time of immense tension and uncertainty, we are seeing glimmers of hope, a new generation with new ideals.
COLLEEN: And new tactics about how to achieve it.
VICTORIA: The one constant in dealing with the pandemic and police brutality, global warming and all the other crises that are threatening our health and safety...
SUE: ...is that we must vote — in elections of all levels — from school boards and city councils, to state legislatures, for Congress and, of course, the White House.
VICTORIA: And women can do that, standing on the shoulders of all the women who came before us, who fought so hard and for so long for us to have this right — the right to vote.
MUSIC: Madame Gandhi, “The Future is Female”
STACEY ABRAMS: I believe in the power of voters.
DEB HAALAND: I'm passionate about our right to vote.
KAMALA HARRIS: Elections matter.
TERRENCE FLOYD: Educate yourself and know who you're voting for.
ELIZABETH WARREN: Cast a vote from your heart.
KILLER MIKE: Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.
MICHELLE OBAMA: This is how you can finish the work that the generations before you have started.
OUTRO: Thanks for listening. If you couldn't identify some of those last voices, they were Stacey Abrams, former candidate for Georgia governor; Congresswoman Deb Haaland; Senator Kamala Harris; Terrence Floyd, brother of the late George Floyd; Senator Elizabeth Warren; Killer Mike, the activist and rapper; and former First Lady Michelle Obama. This has been a special project from The Story Exchange, a nonprofit media company that provides inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women business owners. And we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org — or find us on Facebook. I'm Colleen DeBaise. This episode was reported by Corinne Lestch and Victoria Flexner. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Assistant sound editor is Noël Flego. Our mixer is Pat Donohue at String & Can. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang. Our thanks to Madame Gandhi for so generously allowing us to use “The Future is Female” as our theme song. The song “Near Light,” performed by Ólafur Arnalds, is courtesy of Erased Tapes Records and Kobalt Songs Music Publishing.