Culture & Conversation Politics

What Women’s Right to Vote Means in a Trump Era: A Q&A With Vanderbilt Professor Bonnie Dow

Julissa Treviño

"We need to fight [voter suppression] laws in order for women to fully participate in the democratic process in 2018," explains Vanderbilt University professor Bonnie J. Dow.

It’s been nearly 100 years since women were granted the right to vote under the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The day is commemorated nationally on Women’s Equality Day, August 26.

To understand the dynamics of the women’s suffrage movement, and how much progress we have left to make in a Trump era, Rewire spoke to Bonnie J. Dow, professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University, whose research interests include the rhetoric and representation of the first and second waves of feminism in the United States. Dow is also on the board of directors for Women for Tennessee’s Future, a political action committee dedicated to electing progressive women in the state.

Rewire: Can you describe the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s?

Bonnie Dow: Most historians would say it started in 1848 because that’s when there was the first women’s rights convention where the demand for the vote was publicly uttered. It happened in Seneca Falls, New York. If we decide that’s where it started, then it was a 72-year movement. The women’s rights movement in the 19th century was a very broad movement. They were trying to solve a lot of issues, including education, denial of employment, a loss of rights when you marry. What emerged as the fundamental issue was the vote. Voting became the most powerful symbol of the women’s right movement because it’s a form of participation in citizenship.

Rewire: Black women were active in the suffrage movement, but when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, women of color still faced serious barriers to voting. Was there a movement post-1920 to bridge this gap?

BD: There were several prominent women of color active in the suffrage movement, including anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and National Association of Colored Women President Mary Church Terrell. African-American women always saw the right to vote as part of an agenda in the fight for civil rights. Suffrage was just one part of their efforts; they were also advocating for access to education, a ban of lynching. When the 19th Amendment was ratified, there were still Southern states that kept African-American women and men from voting. At that point, that really became central to the civil rights movement, starting in the 1950s, in particular around the access to vote and voter registration. Although the faces of that movement were often all African-American men, women were pushing for that from the beginning. Did white women by-and-large abandon the cause to ensure voting access after 1920? Yes, until white women became involved in civil rights, as some did.

Rewire: The term “mainstream feminism” describes a feminism that puts white women’s issues at the forefront of the movement and a lack of inclusivity. Do you think this is a fair characterization of some feminist efforts?

BD: If you look at a lot of policy changes and legislation that were fought for in the 1970s, it’s legislation that would benefit women of color in the same way it would benefit [both] WOC and white women. The anti-pregnancy discrimination act, the wage disparity issue. There’s of course concern that privileged white women don’t have as much to lose, and the history of cross-race alliances in the feminist movement is not as good as it could be …. Women come in all sizes, shapes, and races, and we need a feminism that benefits all women and to see each other as allies. One of the things I worry about is that feminists will argue against each other instead of fighting against the systems that are barriers for all women.

Rewire: Where do you think gay women, trans women, and nonbinary people fit into the conversation?

BD: I think that queer voices are very powerful in contemporary feminism. Some of the most influential feminist activists these days are transgender and queer activists. These issues are all deeply related. [As history of mainstream feminism has shown,] for feminism to be hostile to the queer community at large is a big mistake. They’re at the front lines of [anti-discrimination] movements.

Rewire: More women than men have voted in each presidential election since 1960. Why do you think women voters have outpaced men voters?

BD: Behind the scenes, women tend to be more active in their communities. They tend to be more active in church, in community organizations and charities; they are often solely responsible for the civic education of their children. I think it’s more that because of the social roles that women play, that makes them more likely to vote.

Rewire: Were women barred from running for office before the 19th Amendment was ratified? I recently read about Jeannette Rankin and her election to Congress in 1916, four years before women would have the right to vote.

BD: That all varied by local and state laws. The first woman to run and get elected for public office was Susanna Madora Salter, who became mayor in a Kansas town in 1887. Jeanette Rankin, who was the first woman to be elected to Congress, was deeply involved in the movement for the right to vote in Montana. She decided that if women were going to try to get the vote, they needed representation. She ran, and she won. She had a really interesting record as a legislator. She voted against every war. She voted against World War I and lost her seat. She gets elected again, then World War II comes along, she votes against it, and she lost her seat again. [Voting against the war] was considered unpatriotic at the time.

Rewire: This year, only 19.4 percent of the legislators in Congress are women. And only 38 of 104 women are people of color. What do you make of those numbers? Are we making good progress?

BD: We didn’t make significant progress in 2016. But Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, so the majority of people who voted could envision a woman president, so that’s great. Even though we didn’t make any real progress in Congress, we did elect several more women of color. We actually drastically improved women’s representation in Congress by improving the representation of women of color. We had nine new women of color elected in 2016.

At the state level, there’s a lot more going on. For example, women in Tennessee, where I live, are very poorly represented. Of our 132 state legislators, only 17 percent are women. In Colorado and Vermont, that percentage is a lot higher. Those problems are best addressed at the state level.

There are a few things we know about women’s participation in politics, one of which is that it’s not that women don’t win elections, it’s that they don’t run [as often as men]. The chances of women winning are about the same as men. It’s not true anymore that people don’t want to elect a woman. The biggest problem is getting them to run at all.

Rewire: Why aren’t more women running for office?

BD: The factors that drive women away from public office starts early in life. In junior high, they might talk about running for office someday, but in high school, that desire starts to decline. By the time they’re really involved in their career in their 30s and 40s, they don’t think they can run for office anymore because they have kids by then, and they don’t think they can do both. We don’t provide the kind of support that women elected officials need—we don’t have good child care in legislatures, for instance— because we assume those elected are men.

The other thing is men are encouraged a lot more to run from an early age, whereas women don’t often get encouragement to run.

Some women don’t even think they’re qualified enough to run for office, while men always think they’re qualified. Another thing is of course money. It’s hard to come up with money to run for office. We have laws that give enormous advantages to people that are independently wealthy, and men are more likely to be independently wealthy. It’s not a level playing field.

Everything I’ve just said about women in general, it’s worse for women of color. This is too bad, because African-American women are, for instance, reliable Democratic voters and volunteers. We should be asking them to run for office.

Rewire: When women of color do run for office, what can we do to learn from the campaigns of Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, and other women running for any elected position to better support the candidates who we wish to see in office?

BD: A crucial thing we can do for women candidates is to understand that we have too much of a tendency to parse people by race versus gender—to take everyone that’s a person of color and assume all she cares about is race. We have to bring intersectionality into the conversation …. White women need to see women of color candidates as potential allies, because while they’re not going to have the same exact kind of experiences … certainly they’re going to be sympathetic and attentive to the same gender issues we all experience.

Rewire: The women’s vote in the 2016 election widely differed by race, with Black women voting for Hillary Clinton by 94 percent and white women voting for Donald Trump by 53 percent. What do you believe were the pressing issues that created the disparity?

BD: Generally, African-American women are more reliable Democratic voters …. I think they looked at Donald Trump and said this guy doesn’t want to protect us. A lot of privileged white women voted for Donald Trump, I think, because they thought they didn’t need to be protected to the same extent. 

Rewire: Have there been any recent movements that are helping improve women’s participation in politics?

BD: I wouldn’t call them movements, but there are several organizations that have sprung up in the last decade to actively engage women. Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office, and She Should Run, which recruits women to run for office, come to mind. Emily’s List helps elect pro-choice female candidates. Then there are state-specific ones like Annie’s List, which is based in Texas, and Women for Tennessee’s Future here in Tennessee.

Rewire: There have been a few openly trans women running for office in recent years. How has or how can the mainstream women’s movement support getting more LGBTQ candidates in office?

BD: You encourage them and ask them to run. People who are politically active in their communities make great candidates, regardless of their race, gender, or identity …. What we tend to do is assume that white men are the best fit for office, because that’s what we see in office now. We just have to start paying in attention to the qualities we want in elected officials, and anytime we see those qualities, not to dismiss them because of a person’s gender or sexual identity.

Rewire: What impact, if any, do you think voter ID laws will have on women’s participation in the political system, particularly in 2018?

BD: Because there is almost no evidence of voting fraud, voter ID laws are really just a form of voter suppression, and they are overwhelmingly passed by Republican legislatures. Voter suppression is directed at reliable Democratic voters, and that means people of color and people of lesser means. So women of color are deeply affected by these laws, and we need to fight those laws in order for women to fully participate in the democratic process in 2018.

Rewire: Given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, how do you see women’s participation in politics taking shape after the 2016 election?

BD: Trump has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. There is already a record number of women who plan on running for public office next year. It’s going to be something to watch. If that turns out to be true, that’s going to be amazing. We just need more women on the ballot. There’s a statistic that says if we keep voting and running at the current pace, we will reach parity with men in 100 years. We haven’t even been voting for 100 years. Black women did their jobs in 2016, but there are a lot of signs that suggest women as a whole are going to participate even more in 2018.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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