The Utility of Women’s Caucuses in Today’s Political Climate

This week in North Philly NotesAnna Mitchell Mahoney, author of Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures, writes about the importance of women and bipartisan caucuses.

The toxic masculinity displayed perpetually by politicians and tracked by scholars (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/) in our current political climate reminds us of the importance of formal and intentional women’s spaces. Women’s organizations inside and outside of institutions serve many purposes including strategic planning and action for policy change as well as support for women who do disproportionate amounts of household, professional, and emotional labor. My book, Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, examines under what conditions women state legislators carve out a space for themselves within legislatures where men make up three-quarters of members.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures_smThe more things change, the more they stay the same.

My research found that many of the reasons women formed caucuses in the 1970s and 1980s are very similar to the motivations of today’s women caucus entrepreneurs. The bias and exclusion women felt when they were increasing their numbers in state legislatures continued to be reported by the women legislators I interviewed between 2009-2013 when their numbers plateaued around 24%. Apart from experiences of discrimination, women also reported wanting relationships with other women who shared their experiences as a woman in politics to learn from them and feel supported. This year has seen an increase in the number of women filing to run for state legislative seats (https://www.genderwatch2018.org/). If more women enter legislatures, will they seek out women’s only spaces?

What is in it for them?

In 2016, 22 states have such organizations whose missions vary from agenda setting policy caucuses, to those who take up policies on an ad hoc basis, to those whose primary mission is social – supporting each other as women, no policy consensus necessary. These caucuses allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain policy areas and advocates for certain constituencies. Caucuses help members build relationships and gain information useful for accomplishing their goals. These groups also provide opportunities for leadership. Other studies have shown, depending on the proportion of women in the majority party, the presence of a women’s caucus may be correlated with higher proportions of women in leadership positions, increasing their status within the institution, getting them closer to the reins of power themselves (Kanthak and Krause 2012). Savvy entrepreneurs who want to strengthen women’s caucuses use many of these arguments when trying to motivate other women to join while simultaneously refuting counterclaims that women no longer need these spaces or that bipartisan caucuses themselves are inappropriate.

What is in it for all of us?

In light of today’s hyper-partisanship, one may ask what use a bipartisan caucus is, especially if it is only social in nature. Does it really matter? If the other side is populated by traitors and extremists, why even attempt relationships? In subsequent research, my colleague Mirya Holman and I found that states with women’s caucuses (even those that were only social) had an increased co-sponsorship rate among women indicating that policy outcomes are possible – even when policy is taken explicitly off the table for the caucus. Further, during the Kavanaugh hearings, much was made of the bipartisan relationship between Senator Coons and Senator Flake.  Bipartisan, personal relationships never go out of style in legislatures – even if they are strained during hyper partisan times (Victor and Ringe 2009).

Bipartisan caucuses are one place such relationships are formed in legislatures that prioritize partisan loyalty and gender norm expectations. In addition to the benefits for participants, women’s caucuses make three significant interventions to legislative institutions. First, by creating a legislative organization that signifies gender as politically salient, women legislators are challenging the false gender neutrality of politics. In my book, I make visible male dominance within these institutions that many consider androgynous. Observers may note this advantage in the social norms of legislatures where men call out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs, where men exclude women from social gatherings where they actually make the deals, and through more formal processes where party leaders concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude them from leadership positions.

Second, the establishment of women’s caucuses inside male-dominated legislative institutions can provide a safe space for marginalized legislators to support each other, as well as help develop and refine legislative initiatives. Caucuses are a way to counteract institutional norms that may require women to play a man’s game, adopt a particular political persona, or adhere to someone else’s definition of appropriate political priorities. When gender norms are challenged or broadened in a public space like legislatures, the possibilities for all women grow.

Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.  These potential interventions are significant and indicate the importance of these organizations beyond the adoption (or not) of women-friendly policy.

Scholars must continue to probe the value or necessity of these bipartisan organizations. One day they may no longer be necessary as women are wholly incorporated into the institutions in which they serve. However, it may be that women will always seek comradery and support from those with similar lived experiences, regardless of how far their workplaces come in accommodating their presence. For now, the symbolic importance of women’s spaces within male-dominated institutions continues to signal that women belong in office and women can work together (even if in limited ways). More tangibly, the handful of women’s caucuses that participate in recruiting and training women for campaigns hold out hope that they may have a few new members come next session.

References

Kanthak, Kristin, and George A. Krause. 2012. The Diversity Paradox: Political Parties, Legislatures, and the Organizational Foundations of Representation in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Victor, Jennifer Nicholl and Nils Ringe. 2009. “The Social Utility of Informal Institutions: Caucuses as Networks in the 110th U.S. House of Representatives.” American Politics Research. 37(5): 742-766.

 

 

 

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University Presses Are Thriving, Not Broken

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost an article about the state of University Presses by Derek Krissoff, Director of West Virginia University Press, that appeared in Inside Higher Ed on October 2.

A casual observer might reasonably assume that university presses are in crisis, or deserve to be. Mainstream outlets routinely proclaim that “academic publishing is broken,” and the new documentary Paywall, currently making the rounds on college campuses, argues that “academic publishers are burdening the higher education market, contributing to the rising tuition fees at all universities . . . and, ultimately, limiting science and progress.”

Whether they say it or not (and Paywall, to its credit, does), these criticisms are directed at commercial publishers of expensive STEM journals rather than not-for-profit university presses, which specialize primarily in books in humanities and social science fields. Think Elsevier vs. the University of Massachusetts Press. The big critiques that make headlines and generate documentaries don’t generally mention university presses at all, leaving many to assume that they’re part of what’s depicted as the problem of rapacious scholarly publishers.

When observers do turn to university presses, the story’s often more grim than angry. Much attention is paid to threatened press closures; less to the opening of new presses or the frequent decisions to keep open presses previously slated to shut down. (How many people know that the University of Akron Press, noisily slated for closure in 2015, not only stayed open but had a finalist for the National Book Award last year?) “Several presses have closed and almost all are struggling,” intoned Richard W. Clement in 2011, distilling a gloomy timbre that persists in many assessments of the industry.

Variously erased, posited as a problem to be solved, and assumed to be dinosaurs on their way out, university presses are in fact, in their low-key fashion, thriving. There are more of them than ever before, and they’re doing better: sales in the industry were up 5 percent last year. That growth isn’t, moreover, coming from cash-strapped libraries. Only 20 to 25 percent of university press sales are to libraries (down from 70 percent forty years ago), and at the University of California, to pick one example, only 7 percent of library budget goes to books of any kind.

As anger spreads over libraries being squeezed by STEM journals from large for-profits, university presses are growing in part by looking beyond a narrow focus on library markets and publishing for new audiences, branching out into crossover titles, supplemental texts, regional books, popular reference works, manifestos, graphic novels, and the like. It’s an entrepreneurial flourishing that engages new readers, creates new communities, and extends the reputation of those universities fortunate enough to have presses.

At the same time, widespread predictions that university presses might abandon less profitable fields and undermine the career prospects of junior scholars seem not to have panned out: 83 percent of scholarly monographs find a publisher. Presses may be publishing new sorts of books, but not at the expense of traditional ones.

Technology, meanwhile, hasn’t changed things the way its most confident champions (some of whom predicted a shift to primarily online publishing) believed to be inevitable. At most university presses 85 to 90 percent of sales continue to come from print. While ebooks aren’t the gamechanger some technophiles expected, a different shift—the ability to print books digitally—has made a huge difference, enabling presses to do small print runs responsibly. When I started in publishing twenty years ago I was told a new book required an initial print run of at least 2,000 copies to be viable. Now we can do just a few books at a time, if necessary, making it easier to continue the mission-driven publishing at our core, even when audiences are specialized.

The growth of virtual spaces for publicizing books and building communities around publishing programs has been the other seismic change made possible by the digital turn. But the results of online marketing often show up in print sales and IRL interactions (think: nicely publicized bookstore events) rather than digital downloads.

So what about open access for books? The approach has promise, particularly for some specialized titles that don’t reward the high-investment model of conventional publishing. But OA publishing costs money, just like conventional publishing—money that comes from somewhere even if it isn’t the customer. Simply changing who pays for publishing isn’t necessarily progressive and can exacerbate or reinscribe inequalities. For example, plans to have authors’ universities cover the costs of publication ($35,000 per book, according to a study from Ithaka) may limit the pool of potential authors to those employed by wealthier institutions. Limitations like these may help account for the fact that only 1 percent of new scholarly books in English are published open access.

Saying that university presses are resilient, and that their recent history is characterized by continuity more than disruption, isn’t meant to suggest they’re static. University presses have always experimented, and they’ll continue to do so; they face challenges and, like the rest of the university, respond creatively. But university presses are best positioned to make the most of current prospects if they’re seen as valuable, not broken—if proposed changes are understood as having the potential to ensure a range of complementary publishing options, including the surprisingly durable model of traditional publishing.

Derek Krissoff (@DerekKrissoff) is director at West Virginia University Press, the only university press, and largest book publisher of any kind, in West Virginia.

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