There Is More to Women’s Political Participation than Voting

Journalists and data junkies alike are gleefully dissecting the gender gap and what it potentially means for the mid-term elections. There are dozens of articles observing that the differences in how women and men view and vote on issues is larger than ever before (Susan Page from USA Today describes this gap as “yawning”), and plenty of pieces predicting that Trump’s crass statements and hardline policies have rallied women, meaning, according to the New York Times, that “angry female college graduates could end up being a defining force in this election.”

Despite my interest in gender and American politics, I find the focus on the gender gap annoying. Why? Because it downplays women’s political engagement outside of the voting booth and obscures their importance as agents of change.

We know that women have provided critical leadership to social movements throughout history.

In her excellent book on women in the labor movement, Dorothy Sue Cobble (2004: 5) reminds us that “the dearth of women in formal, publicly visible roles should not necessarily be taken as an indication of female powerlessness or lack of influence.” History is rife with examples. One hundred years before Rosie the Riveter became an icon of working women (and a rallying point for equal pay), Sarah G. Bagley founded the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and the organization petitioned the legislature for shorter (10 hour) work days for mill workers. Flash forward approximately 80 years. Since 2010, Mary Kay Henry has served as SEIU (Service Employees International Union) president, representing around 2 million workers in Canada and the U.S.

The labor movement is just one example. Women played prominent roles in the prohibition movement. In the 1850s, women advocating on behalf of prohibition regarded men’s political will to abolish the sale of alcohol – then regarded as major cause of America’s social problems including poverty, crime, and violence – as unreliable and took matters into their own hands, raiding saloons and liquor dealers and destroying their stock. And, women continue to play prominent roles in groups and movements of all political stripes- from the progressively inclined Indivisible (Meighan Stone) and Black Lives Matter (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) to champions of the alt-right (Cassie Jaye).

We know that women’s engagement extends well beyond the ballot box.

Feminist scholars and political scientists have long noted that there are differences between men and women in terms of their types of participation and that these differences reflect broader gender inequalities. For example, in their cross national analysis Hilde Coffé and Catherine Bolzendahl (2010) find that women, on average, are significantly more likely than men to engage in private activism such as signing petitions, boycotting/buying products for political reasons, and donating/raising money for social/political groups. That said, social scientists, including Kristen Goss and Dana Fisher, have tracked women’s visible political engagement. The table below summarizes some of their findings regarding the gender, race, and age makeup of select protests between 2000 and 2018. Notice that women are well represented.

tableNote: These data are from Goss, Kristin A. 2003. “Rethinking the Political Participation Paradigm.” Women & Politics 25(4):83-118 and Dana Fisher (2018), American Resistance,


This, of course, doesn’t come close to capturing the breadth of women’s engagement.

Take the Raging Grannies for example. Since 1987, these women have been exploiting stereotypes about aging so that they can infiltrate and disrupt political events. For their first action, which was on Valentine’s Day, the “grannies” delivered their MP, Pat Crofton, who was the Chairman of the Canadian Defence Committee, a broken heart. They sang him a satirical lullaby focusing on his lack of commitment and action on nuclear issues while standing under a holey umbrella, which symbolized the absurdity of trying take cover under a nuclear umbrella.  Their political theatre was a huge hit and Raging Grannie chapters popped up across the U.S. and Canada.

Other women’s organizations, such as the Red Hat Society (founded in 1997), take on stereotypes involving women directly. These women dress in red hats and purple clothes and take to the theatre, the mall, the museum, and virtually any other public space in order to show older women out “having fun.” These ladies, however, are interested in more than “having fun.” They often see themselves as part of a larger women’s movement and the Red Hat Society as a way to advocate for cultural change. Many Red Hat chapters, in fact, take up women’s issues in their communities – raising money and awareness for everything from battered women’s shelters to ovarian cancer.

As a final example of women’s extensive political engagement take the #MuteRKelly movement. Founded in 2017 by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye, the #MuteRKelly movement tries to get companies to cut ties with the artist, who has been repeatedly accused of sexually abusing underage girls. The movement has been consequential. Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora all announced that they would no longer promote Kelly’s music on their editorial playlists.

Journalists covering the 2018 mid-term elections enjoy spinning out narratives about cleavages in American society when it comes to voting. The gender gap is one of the tales they can weave together through data and first-person accounts. While gender differences in voting patterns are certainly important, it comfortably fits with a broader tendency to downplay women’s leadership and engagement throughout history. It is critical that we remind journalists, our students, and ourselves, that the gender gap in voting does not capture women’s political contributions or their political diversity. Women’s engagement matters well beyond their votes.

  Deana Rohlinger is a professor of Sociology. She studies social movements, mass media and political participation. 

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