September 1, 2012

Suffrage, Gender Politics and Millennial Women

This particular essay came from a question posed by a friend of mine, Amber Gray-Fenner, in a Facebook post:

Thought Experiment: If the "single issue" facing voters in November's Presidential Election was women's suffrage, where do you think your preferred candidate would stand? Women---we've had the vote for less than 100 years. Think before you use yours.

This got me to thinking a lot about women and generational politics. This is, admittedly, always a land mine for a male writer - while I can look at the historical record for patterns, the world view that women and men have are, at a biological level, fairly different, because physically our brains have evolved over many hundreds of millennia to facilitate very distinct biological functions. Thus, I'm having to mentally "think like a woman", and as my wife is quick to remind me, that's not always an exercise I do well.

In response to Amber's comment, however, I started thinking about the context during which most of the world moved towards women's suffrage. It's significant that while the issue of a woman's right to vote had been percolating under the surface during much of the 19th century, the catalyst for woman's suffrage came after World War I. If you go by Strauss and Howe's generational designation, you had four generational groupings active at that time - the Progressive Generation (1843-1859) ,the Missionary Generation (1860-1882), the Lost Generation (1883-1900) and the G.I. Generation (1901-1924).

For what it's worth, I don't completely agree with S&H about the generational names or dates, but usually differ only by a year or two on the latter - I think that while in the main they are correct about characteristics, the naming is too tied to a specific event. However, since these are already fairly well established, I'll refer to these groups as the Progressives (differing from 21st century progressivism), the Missionaries, the Lost and the GIs respectively, noting that these are previously given generational titles.

There is a profound distinction between pre and post World War I cultures. Suffrage battles had percolated in the background in the decades after the Civil War - with the 14th through 16th amendments, slaves had not only gained emancipation, but a profound change had happened in American culture with the enfranchisement of those former slaves ... especially since not that many decades before one of the most hotly debated issues was whether non-land-owners had the right to vote. The representational form of government that we have today has its history not in the impracticalities of direct voting (though that played a factor), but rather in the belief that there needed to be a buffer layer between the enfranchised (who might be rabble) and the actual elective process. When slaves gained the right to vote, it had as an immediate effect a major shift in political power (though black representatives were few and fare between on the ground until the twentieth century).

However, it also still meant that roughly fifty percent of the US population couldn't vote - women. The sentiment behind this was that "lacking education and the capacity for advanced thought" women were incapable of making important decisions about the direction of state. Yet since this was exactly the same argument used about the former slave population, it became ever more difficult for that legal pretense to continue. (The same argument was occurring in England). This continued through the latter Victorian period and into the Edwardian with Victoria's death in 1901. Victoria herself was famously against woman's suffrage, which makes sense given that she was born in 1819, a time during which women's roles were extremely circumscribed in England especially, and in many respects before the Industrial Revolution which had the effect of seeing women enter into the clothing mills and other early factories that fed England's imperial rise. With her death and that of King Edward VII in 1910 (Edward was also largely pre-industrial, having been born in 1841), much of the institutional pressure in England against suffrage has slipped away, and by 1918, women aged 30 and over were allowed both to vote and run for Parliament, with the vote extended to those 21 and over in 1928.

In the US, those (especially the women) born after the Civil War - the Missionary Generation - were also increasingly questioning why it was that women were still not enfranchised. One of the key figures in the woman's suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been an ardent abolitionist prior to the war, and had shifted her energy to the woman's suffrage movement afterwards. However, both she and Susan B. Anthony had also been very vocal about her opposition to the 14th and 15th amendments, arguing that the amendments should only have been passed if they also enfranchised a woman's right (white or black) to white. (Here is a good summary of this period), and her positions on the liberalization of divorce laws, property ownership and other issues was a big part of the schism between the two suffrage movements, one more progressive, the other more conservative and Christian oriented).

The two did eventually merge in 1890 as the National American Women's Suffrage Association, with Stanton as president. However, the schism was sufficient to take much of the momentum out of the movement, and when Stanton died in 1902, suffrage was still two decades out. Similar debates had been taking place elsewhere in the world, driven in their respective cultures by the fact that industrialization frequently had the effect of putting women into a position where they were able to accumulate wages, but that such wages effectively were the property of their husbands. Because industrial work forces also generally needed to be somewhat better educated, this also had the effect of increasing the literacy levels of women throughout much of the industrializing world.

By the end of World War I, women effectively became the work force while American and British men were fighting in the trenches. Ironically, one of their biggest opponents (and later Allies) at the time was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. In his first term, Wilson was fairly adamantly opposed to the suffrage movement (a position that may have been due to his wife Edith Wilson's own ambivalence towards the movement ... her origin in Georgia (and her family's extensive contributions to the Confederacy during the war) made her very resistant to the idea of woman's suffrage)). Woodrow Wilson's position was made increasingly untenable, however, when he announced that the newly entered World War I was a war for the protection of Democracy - this so enraged the suffrage movement that it organized a major protest in front of the White House, organized by National Woman's Party president Alice Paul. Arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison, she began a hunger strike that eventually forced Wilson to relent, and by 1917 he had shifted to being for women receiving the vote. That women were heavily involved in the war effort by then was no small amount of the calculus as well (something that should be understood in the current political light). In 1920, after several votes opposed largely by the more conservative southern members of his own party) Wilson signed the 19th Amendment granting Women the right to vote.

Given this history, it's worth looking a the question in light of the two existing contenders for President - current President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Again, a bit of a diversion into the more recent past is instructive.

In the 1970s, one of the most amazing political transformations in recent history occurred - the Democratic Party became the Republican Party. A succession of maps from 1952 to 2000 illustrates this:

In the 1950s, the Democratic Party was concentrated in the South, while the Republicans tended to be the party of the West Coast and the Northeast. In the 1960s, however, the Democrat John F. Kennedy, from an affluent Boston family, gave limited, lukewarm support to the Civil Rights movement taking place in Alabama. After his assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson further supported this expansion, but in so doing, the core southern states of the Democratic Party effectively balked.

During the 1950s as well, Eisenhower came out in favor of an amendment to the Constitution first proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) effectively would have guaranteed equal protection under the law for men and women. Ironically, it was labor unions, the mainstay of the Democratic Party at the time, that were most in opposition, because they feared in general that as proposed the ERA amendment would undermine government protection of women in labor unions - a stance that Eleanor Roosevelt also took (primarily for the same reasons that Elizabeth Stanton opposed the 14th and 15th amendments, fearing that if these were locked in they would override other policies that currently provided protection. Thus, it was largely middle class Republican women in the 1950s and early 1960s that were among the biggest backers of the ERA. Additional many unions in the South were concerned that the ERA would weaken the influence of the largely male dominated unions.

The 1964 election was nearly unanimous in favor of Johnson, largely because the death of the popular Kennedy was still vibrant in people's minds, but significantly, the only holdouts in that election were the southern Democrats, who were becoming concerned that Johnson was pressing too heavily with civil rights, and who were becoming increasingly attracted to the conservative politics (of the time) of Barry Goldwater. Additionally women in the conservative south were increasingly concerned about the feminist movement and its growing divergence from "traditional" views of women (this was also the period during which religious fundamentalism was becoming more pronounced in the South). When Nixon resigned and Ford became president, the ERA was increasingly in trouble in southern states, and eventually it would run into trouble in those states that are increasingly seen as Republican territory.

In effect, between 1960 and 1980, the Republican party captured the southern stronghold of the Democrats, but alienated most of the Northeast Republican base, and women, originally drawn to the Democratic party through the effects of Kennedy and Johnson, abandoned the Republican party wholesale after Nixon, as did African Americans. Many "Dixiecrats" (who had supported Alabama Governor Wallace in 1972) become the most ardently conservative Republicans, and after 1980 the political center of the US Government shifted considerably to the right.

Given all that, I finally get around to Amber's original question. Barack Obama was born in 1961, which puts him on the cusp of being a GenXer. Politically, he is very close to being an Eisenhower Republican, which ironically puts him marginally to the right of Richard Nixon. However, he came of age AFTER the great political dance of 1968, making him today slightly more progressive than southerner Bill Clinton. It can be argued however that he is also probably the most feminist friendly President since Richard Nixon. Obama also tends to manifest much of the policy as engineering approach that I suspect is a defining characteristic of the GenXers, and it means that his approach to governing tends to be systemic, which typically manifests itself in attempting to find that point in the system that has the largest impact and applying pressure there, even if it doesn't seem obvious that this is a huge priority.

Mitt Romney was born in 1947, which puts him in the leading vanguard of the Boomer generation. Romney's formative years were in the early 1960s, and in many respects his policies as Massachusetts governor were also along the same mold as Eisenhower. However, what he has to contend with is a Republican party that is really the Southern Dixiecrat party. This party has become increasingly reactionary as wealthy southern military/petroleum industry began to spend larger and larger amounts of money in the region, making the descendants of the 1930s labor union workers comparatively wealthy while at the same time catalyzing the growth of a Calvinistic Fundamentalist movement that really started to gain a foothold in the mid-1960s and expanded dramatically with the rise of the Religious Right during the Reagan campaign.

As the region grew, it attracted large numbers of people willing to deal with the hot, damp summers as well as a number of Silent Generation who found the area a good place to prosper.  This generation overall were the ones that fought in World War II as young soldiers, were more than likely of agrarian origin, and who generally were the most religious. The leading edge of that generation is now in their late eighties. They were the union workers and office workers in the 1950s, were hitting their point of highest affluence in the 1970 and 80s, and for the most part are now funding the various conservative movements today.

There seems to be a pattern in human behavior that one's political views late in life tend to be a reflection of an idealization of that person's childhood. The childhood of the Silent Generation was that of the Depression - bleak, mostly agrarian, where women had very traditional roles, partially because the bad economy significantly reduced opportunities for women (and men for that matter), because clothing was expensive and "fripperies" were to be discouraged, and because in agrarian 1930s America, women worked the kitchens all day, keeping the house presentable and making sure the kids were engaged doing something useful while the menfolk were out in the fields toiling. The men, for their part, tended to see "their women" as part of the furniture - the person who cooked your meals and washed your clothes and bore your kids, and neither men or women (especially those in the rural areas) understood the real power that would come with the right of women to vote, because these changes would really only manifest themselves with their children and grandchildren.

Moreover, these changes really did happen more slowly in the agrarian areas, and even today, much of the South and West is still largely agrarian. The Republican (aka neoDixecrat) Party of today manifest that with increasingly reactionary policies that are very much at odds with where the rest of the country is today. The Tea Party is indicative of this - it is largely agrarian in origin, arises primarily among southern Boomers and Silent Generation people, and combines a mix of self-sufficiency mythologizing that hearkens back to that earlier age (when you had to be self-sufficient) with a strong religious upbringing where the Scopes trial had the right finding (teacher John Scopes was found guilty) but then was miscarried due to a technicality, along with a string suspicion of the government and taxes (these were the people who felt that Roosevelt had betrayed their country by becoming a "socialist").

This hearkens back to a second question that Amber asked me, about why Republican women would so obviously vote against their own self interest - even to the extent of voting to repeal the vote:

 I was hoping for some decent commentary, which yours is. I tend to agree with your assessment. A delicate calculus indeed. There's just a lot to think about. I mean, what does it mean to be a "Republican Woman"?

While my first response would be to say "Stupid" that's both unfair and inaccurate. I think there's actually two factors that come into play there. The first is a kind of mental blindness that happens when women say that they think women shouldn't vote, that they would naturally be exempted from that - what they're actually saying is that "unless you are part of the elect, you will not get a vote in the system, especially if you are a women."

I have no doubt this likely would happen - the goal here is to get the other party out of power in order to have a stable oligarchy where the wealthy are the only ones who have a voice in the government, and as women tend to dominate Democratic politics at the local and regional level (for reasons described above), by turning conservative Democratic men against women, it splits the party.

However, I think the above commentary should also be factored in. For the Silent Generation, this was how they were brought up, and it is hard to change that internal programming when you get old. It's a lot like like traumatic stress disorder - when the economy has collapsed around you and you're not even sure where your next meal is going to come from when you're a child, you learn frugality, a dependence upon the power of faith and a suspicion of anyone or anything that may make life even harder ... even if you are now a multi-billionaire.

There's a certain magical thinking among this group that "if only we return to the old values the world will be better". That's the essence of conservatism in a nutshell. The traditional values in question are almost inevitably those that they had as children or young adults. For the Boomers, this is the "Happy Days" world of the mid 1950s and early 1960s, when their lives were secure, they didn't have to start making their own life choices, and there were clearly defined gender roles. It's why the Republican convention really does look like it's the re-enactment of a particularly affluent 1950s high school.

Romney is now facing that - he grew up as a privileged kid in an affluent suburb, but his party is now dominated by people who grew up in the Depression and are increasingly reverting to that era. In attempting to track to the right (all politicians do that during a primary, because they have to secure their base), he ended up getting sucked up in a political whirlpool that was so strong as to keep him from tracking left towards his more natural moderate Republicanism.  This fringe is dominated by deep pocketed people whose PTSD evolved into a strong business sense and whose politics were shaped by a world of Social Darwinism where survival came down to never letting yourself be on the losing side of a deal, no matter how reprehensible, but in addition to them there are their children or grandchildren who are instructed that this is the way the world is, even if it isn't anymore, and they in turn then call out to others like them.

It's worth noting that this is why I am certain that the GOP as it currently exists is on its way out. The religious conservative base, for the most part, is ancient, and those ranks aren't replenishing themselves. They are dying off. As a movement, it is also based primarily in the agrarian south, and the urban south is both becoming more prominent, more liberal, and younger.

That's why this move towards trying to use gender politics will prove so disastrous for the GOP. It worked in the 1970s when the party had used it successfully to mobilize social conservatives on abortion after Roe vs. Wade, but that was also forty years ago. Yet it doesn't even remotely correspond to the world as it exists today for most people under the age of fifty.

My generation, the GenXers came into its own during the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Gender roles were being called into question, the economy was uncertain and money was tight, the stentorian tones of Walter Cronkite were being increasingly replaced by journalism that challenged the status quo. Girls during this era grew up in the heady days when the cultural icons were people like Gloria Steinem and George Carlin, and as such you'll find that there's a sharp-drop off in the number of Republican women in our generation ... and that the ones that are there in general are products of very conservative subcultures such as the Deep South and Texas.

Our generation is now entering into the dominant power position in the cycle. If you put the start of the GenXers at about 1962, this means that the leading edge of that generation turns 50 this year. This means that the values that you and I acquired when we were 12-15 are increasingly going to manifest as public policy. Obama's a GenXer, albeit at the very leading edge, and having grown up in a primarily urban setting has meant that his philosophies are probably pretty close to the norm for that generation. His policies wrt women are clearly informed by that ethic (and the fact that he was raised by a fairly progressive mother alone I think contributed to the fact that he is more sensitive to "women's issues" even than many of this generation).

However, to get back to the original question - the women of our generation are less bound by the "supermom" ethic, and for the most part are also much more likely to continue questioning gender roles. The downside is that these women generally married later, had familien theren theres later, had smaller families, and typically were not as well educated in critical "life skills" as cooking, folding laundry, and even child rearing, partially because the novelty of dual income households which effectively doubled family incomes for the previous generation has now morphed into the necessity of dual income households as the much broader arc of oil depletion sends reverberations through society.

I have two girls - one Millennial (Kate) born in 1993, about 60% through the arc of that generation, and one Virtual (Jennifer) born in 2000, or just at the cusp of her generation. From what I've seen of Kate's generation of young women, they are highly social within their own peer groups (and in near 24/7 communication with them) but shy and awkward around older generations. Politically they are very much conformists, but that conformity is generational and even stratified by age groups within that generation. GenXers are engineers and accountants, Millennials for the most part are creatives and integrators. (The mashup is very much a Milliennial construct). Gender roles are fluid, and tend to be worn and shed with the ease of changing a cosplay. From what I can tell, Millennial women will likely end up marrying late if at all (the institution of marriage is seen as increasingly irrelevant by this generation) and despite the size of the cohort (it's about the same size as the Baby Boom generation, but that's primarily because it's an interference bump where both Boomers and GenXers later child bearing periods caused an overlap) I think they will actually have considerably fewer children than the preceding generations, as it is also a generation where making social interactions has a higher precedence than making romantic commitments, and such children limit mobility.

As to the Virtuals (2000-2018? or so), the oldest is now in Junior High, so any guess I make is speculation. Having said that, they will not be baby Millennials. The Millennials are overwhelming extroverts (like the Boomers), the Virtuals will be introverts (like the GenXers). They are growing up in hard times, and anxiety is a constant in their lives.  It means they will be seeking structure, and will tend to be more institutional than the Millennials.

Overall, they are more systemic thinkers, having grown up with systemic tools, but the novelty of constant communication has worn off for them - it's what their bigger sisters did. The Millennials are making their own traditions, but see them as being transients. The Virtuals will encode those transients into a new social order. The Ms tend to operate in group think, and as a generation tend to be somewhat shallow - they're the "ooh, shiny!" generation. The Vs will resent this, and will be exasperated by it, and since the Ms are in the process of essentially resetting most of what had come before, the role of the Vs will be to try to classify and order and make sense of that world. The virtuals are the scientists and teachers and librarians. The Millennials will be the nomad generation, Virtuals will be homebodies.

Not sure how this plays out in terms of gender roles, but demographics gives a hint here. Removing net immigration effects, The leading edge of the Boomers turns 70 in a year and a half (assuming 1944 as a baseline). I think there is a good probability (25-30%) that Ms and Vs will be the first generations since Vietnam to have a significant presence of that generation at War (2020-2035). Millennial women will probably start asserting their model of women's roles in that period (the best analogy there would be to look at Millennial women as being the "flappers" of the 21st century - daring, iconoclastic, androgenous, testing societal boundaries- while Virtuals will be far more traditional in their roles out of necessity - clothing is expensive, women need to be more supportive and protect their children during times of war and hardship, social continuity is more important than innovation, etc.

(This latter part is very speculative, mind you, but it feels right to me. Perhaps the iconic image of the young Virtual woman in 2030 would be that of the French Partisan, though even that doesn't quite capture it.)

A final note here - I think we're hitting the zenith of the technology revolution now - it'll play out for perhaps another decade or so but I'm not sure it's locally sustainable. There are problems with supply chain disruptions, economic collapse, accessibility of energy and rare earths, a whole spectrum of problems that are knitting together to cap that experiment for a while - possibly for centuries, certainly for the next few decades. Gender roles tend to oscillate around certain norms, so while I think that in some respects our descendants will on the whole be more egalitarian, there will be cycles where those roles freeze and thaw.

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