Signs from the 2018 Women's March capture the moment (Credit: Pixabay)
Signs from the 2018 Women’s March capture the moment. (Pixabay)

Editor’s note: Listen to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of  our “100 Years of Power” podcast.

In the runup to the 2020 presidential election, six Democratic candidates stepped into the national spotlight. 

Each one presented different policy ideas and strategies for how to achieve them. Each deployed a distinctive way of appealing to the American public. They were diverse in age, race and background. They earned their own memorable spoofs on Saturday Night Live. 

And they were all women.

The United States saw a historic number of female candidates enter the presidential race, on the heels of a series of firsts during the 2018 midterm elections: the first Native American women in Congress (Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids). The first Muslim women elected to Congress (Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar). The first openly bisexual senator (Kyrsten Sinema). The youngest woman ever elected to Congress (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). The list goes on. The momentum, and hunger, to see a woman in the White House after the spectacular loss of Hillary Clinton to President Donald Trump seemed palpable.

“At the end of the day, obviously, voters didn’t buy it,” says Kelly Dittmar, scholar and director of research at The Center for American Women and Politics, a nonpartisan think tank at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But I do think it pushes the needle.”

How Much Has Changed?

That needle has moved — depending on how you look at it — ever so slightly, a significant amount, or not nearly enough since women won the right to vote in 1920, after a long battle that still managed to divide suffragists along lines of race, class and ideology. As the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches in August, The Story Exchange is looking at “100 Years of Power” — what it has meant for women to alternately yield and wield power in politics and, by extension, in their own lives. As feminist writer Carol Hanisch famously put it, “the personal is political.”

Part One of our podcast series looks at the bitter struggle for the vote. Part Two delves into the gains and setbacks after 1920. And the third installment focuses on what history can teach us about the present moment, and, to some extent, the future. We take a look at some of the “modern-day resisters” — grassroots activists, scholars and contemporary feminists — who are leading the fight, devoting their time and energy to push that needle even further, this year and beyond.

“The challenge for activist groups is to figure out how to build a network that feels truly sustainable,” says Rebecca Davis, the founder of New York-based Rally+Rise, one of dozens of grassroots organizations that launched after the 2016 election to send progressives into local, state and federal office. “There is no inevitability to progress.” 

Davis adds that controversial issues such as MeToo, gun control, climate change and reproductive rights will not simply go away or be resolved if a Democrat is elected in November. She takes her own cues from the suffragist movement.

“It’s easy for us now to say, ‘Oh, of course there were just a bunch of women in frilly dresses who were holding signs,’” Davis says of the early activists. “But I think the equivalent today is probably the people who are shutting down Fifth Avenue and getting arrested while protesting ICE.”

“For people to think, ‘I just need to get a Democrat in the White House and then I’m good,’ is the old way of thinking,” she added.

The Women's March on Washington in 2017. (Credit: Flickr)
The Women’s March on Washington in 2017. (Flickr)
A Female VP Candidate Is Guaranteed

With Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, facing off against Trump — or, as Davis puts it, “back to two old white guys” — women are once again taking stock of how and where they fit into the national policy-making puzzle. 

Throw into the mix heightened tensions around police brutality and a devastating, unprecedented global pandemic, where even wearing a mask in public has become a political flashpoint, and larger questions about voter turnout and what Americans care about — or what they can agree on, in terms of who can best steer the country back to literal and figurative health — will not be answered for a while yet.

“I do worry about the voter turnout during the pandemic and people being scared,” says Ronnee Schreiber, associate dean in the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University and a professor of Political Science. “The push for mail-in voting is a really, really important one.”

Here is what we do know: Biden has promised to select a female vice president, which is one way to fast-track a woman to the White House. And if there is one constant, it’s the fact that candidates running for office can’t depend on women as one uniform voting bloc that doesn’t distinguish between party or candidate.

“In 2016, the biggest misunderstanding from many people in the electorate, citizens and even the media, was that women were going to vote for the woman candidate,” says Dittmar. “That shouldn’t have been a surprise if we had had the historical context going into that election about white women’s voting behavior. White women have historically balanced the privilege of their race against the marginalization of their gender.”

Dittmar explains that outreach to women involves two key factors: persuasion and turnout. For black women, one of the most dependable voting groups for Democrats, there is a greater focus on mobilizing them to the polls (they are also more vulnerable to suppression). “But for groups like Latino women, Asian American women, there’s more partisan diversity,” Dittmar says. “So both persuasion and turnout are needed among those groups.”

Glynda Carr, founder of Higher Heights, a political action committee behind the #BlackWomenVote campaign with the goal to elect progressive black women to office, says she has noticed incremental gains in power for African American women through each election cycle. But now there is a bigger shift, a greater sense of urgency.

“Everybody is vying for black women’s votes and attention,” Carr says. “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 organize our networks to vote.”

That also goes for Biden, despite the fact that he enjoys broad support from the same voters who propelled Barack Obama into office. Carr says Biden needs to create more excitement around his campaign to get people to come out and cast their votes for him.

In 2008, “Black women not only voted, but they brought their house, their block, their church, their union and their sorority,” Carr says. “Is [Biden] going to create policies? Discuss what his administration will look like? That will create the enthusiasm.”

Appealing to Women

The trick for candidates, from the highest office in the nation all the way down the ballot, is to approach female voters in smart ways that don’t pander to them.

“Where candidates have gotten it wrong is when they have their separate ‘Women For…’ group, and women surrogates go and talk to that group,” Dittmar says. “They kind of outsource outreach to women voters as if they’re a niche, when, in fact, women are the majority of the electorate.”

Much still remains to be seen as far as who will turn out for Biden and who will stick with Trump — or what the future of voting even looks like in the midst of another predicted wave of Covid-19 in the fall. But if history is any lesson, women will demand their voices to be heard, no matter how dire or difficult the reality.

“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,” says Carr. 

“We are literally going to have to rebuild our economy leading out of the 2020 election cycle. 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.”

Check out the full 100 Years of Power series.