How White Suburban Women Are Organizing in Middle America

We have heard about the transformation of white suburban women since the 2016 election primarily through polling. But back in November 2017, Judith Schulevitz wrote about the work of Theda Skocpol to document what is going on. I summarized what she reported here.

This week Skocpol teamed up with Lara Putnam, who is doing similar work, to write: “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” It is important to note that Putnam focused her attention on the cities and suburbs of southwestern Pennsylvania while Skocpol has made field trips to eight non-big-city counties in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Their contention is this: if you want to understand what has changed politically since the election of Donald Trump, you have to start with this story. In order to tell it, they first let us know what this story is not about.

This is not a leftist Tea Party, because newly engaged suburban activists hail from across the broad ideological range from center to left. It’s not a Sanders versus Clinton redux, because that “last year’s news” divide is flatly irrelevant to the people working shoulder-to-shoulder in the present. It’s not an Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy, because these activists believe laws can make good government as strong and transparent as possible. It’s not the 1960s, with young people leading the way—although there are lots of helpful teenagers in the background saying, “Mom, it’s fine: go to your meeting; I’ll get dinner myself.”

Here are some of the things they found:

  • This revolution is not being tweeted; and even in the private Facebook groups most local groups maintain, the most prolific posters may not represent the views and focus of the members most active in real life.
  • National organizations did not themselves create the dizzying array of local groups.
  • Although men are certainly involved in the local groups that have taken shape since the election, women are indeed very much in the vanguard making up about 70 percent of the participants and most members of the leadership teams.
  • Word spread through churches, unions, PTAs, and local good government groups, and dozens of friends, neighbors, and co-workers assembled for founding meetings in living rooms, in libraries or church basements, or at local restaurants.
  • Everywhere, participants worked through much of 2017 to save health reform; and many undertook campaigns to fight gerrymandering or address educational and environmental issues or speak up on behalf of refugees and immigrants.
  • Self-avowed Democrats are key participants in this new form of engagement, but many local groups have deliberately reached out to Independents and disaffected Republicans…The Democrats among them are pragmatically inclusive as well.
  • The need to contest “every seat, every election” is a new mantra among activists in red or purple communities, appalled by the range of elective offices they discover all around them for which Democrats stopped even fielding candidates over the last decade.
  • Relying organically on what social movement theorists call “relational organizing,” the newly active volunteers mobilized existing social networks to bring in newcomers and connect to expertise.

The description that comes to my mind when I read this is community organizing. Skocpol and Putnam point out that many of these groups formed during bus rides to and from the Women’s March that took place the weekend of Trump’s inauguration.

One word comes up over and over again when talking about what these women are doing: pragmatism. Interestingly enough, Republicans gave them the initial issue around which to organize when they immediately took on the task of repealing Obamacare. That gave these groups the specific goal of intervening to make sure they were not successful, as we saw with calls to congress and attendance at town hall meetings. That morphed into organizing on other issues, but the primary focus has been local elections.

I found it interesting that Skocpol and Putnam pointed out that this is not like the 1960s when young people led the way. What has happened over the last week after the Parkland shooting is that this movement organized by white suburban women could be augmented by the students who are organizing on the specific issue of gun violence.

What we learned from the Alabama senate special election is that African Americans in that state intensified their own organizing in order to elect Doug Jones and defeat Roy Moore. What I am most curious about is if there is any parallel movement developing among immigrants—particularly Hispanic Americans—in response to this administration’s nativist policies. We know that the Dreamers are a force to be reckoned with, but is the broader community being mobilized in states like Texas, Arizona and Nevada where their numbers could really make a difference?

I find stories like the one Skocpol and Putnam have told to be fascinating and a powerful antidote to the endless reports we’ve seen in the media about Trump supporters. As they note, because “this mobilization is both decentralized and based in face-to-face rather than virtual actions, it is impossible to scope from a distance…Local interviews and observations are, therefore, the best way to understand what is going on.” We will start to get a fuller picture of what is going on when similar efforts are undertaken in other communities, especially among people of color.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.