The End of Backlash Politics?

In this blog entry, Jocelyn Boryczka, author of Suspect Citizens,looks at the broader issue of women’s citizenship and how it helps explain why backlash politics does not end with the 2012 elections.

Women played a decisive role in the 2012 elections. They voted for President Obama in much greater numbers than men. Single women and mothers stood out as voting for Obama and against Republicans running for House and Senate seats.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, among others, see this election as marking the American people’s clear rejection of prolife Republican candidates who took extreme positions on banning abortion even in cases of rape, identifying legitimate rape, and supporting a ban on contraceptives. Politicians such as Todd Akin, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney lost because they held positions with which nearly 60% of Americans disagree.

Do the 2012 election results mean an end to the endless cycles of backlash politics against women?Suspect Citizens_sm

Around 1990, people asked similar questions about feminism, wondering if it was “dead.”  Susan Faludi in 1991 wrote Backlash:  The Undeclared War against Women.  In this book, she coined the term “backlash” to refer to the cycles of political reactions against advances made by women toward equality. Feminism, for “backlashers,” serves as the real source of women’s continued discontent with their jobs, education, and political status. For women to be happy, they must abandon the women’s movement and return to their traditional roles as mothers, wives, and obedient daughters.

The fact that we keep asking the same questions indicates that neither the backlash nor feminism is dead.

Taking a step back to look at the broader issue of women’s citizenship helps to explain why backlash politics does not end with the 2012 elections.

The number of female representatives in the U.S. House and Senate is a common way to measure women’s citizenship, or membership in the political community. Voting for women to represent the interests of the people living in their state or congressional district involves trust. Such trust in politics gives the representative the legitimacy necessary to vote on behalf of their constituency. Getting elected to the House or Senate indicates that more Americans trust women as citizens with the legitimacy and authority to represent other citizens.

Women in the 2012 elections still only hold about 17% of the seats in the House and Senate. This number has basically stayed the same since 1992, the “Year of the Woman” when we saw a jump in these female office holders from 6 to 10%. Globally, the U.S. remains on par with the average number of female representatives in legislative bodies at 19%. In comparison to fledgling democracies in the developing world, however, the U.S. is far behind. 56% of Rwanda’s legislature are women, the largest proportion in the world, surpassing even Sweden. A major reason for such higher numbers is that these nations build proportional representation of men and women into their constitutions.

Needless to say, the U.S. has not amended its constitution in this way and, indeed, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed in large measure due to an intense backlash led by women such as Phyllis Schlafly. While some feminists still fight for the ERA, its political future remains quite bleak.

Beneath these numbers, however, a deeper issue exists within the American political culture that helps to explain why the 2012 elections do not mark the end of backlash politics. Women who run for and hold office, much less protest against war or for reproductive freedoms abandon the way Americans traditionally understand women’s relationship to politics – as mothers and wives. These female roles historically grant women the power to socialize future male citizens. Women’s domain in the private sphere of the home also serves as an anchor of social stability amid the disorder of democracy and capitalism.

“Backlashers” remind Americans of this traditional view. Doing so raises the specter of distrust and suspicion of women representatives and activists who claim an active, engaged part in the political community. That part dramatically breaks with the conventional role of women in politics.

As long as Americans hold onto this view of women, they will remain suspect citizens who lack the level of trust necessary for full membership in the political community.  People will sustain doubts about their legitimacy. Such societal doubts about women are the fuel for backlash politics.

The 2012 elections then may be a backlash against backlash politics, but not an end to its endless cycles.

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