Women and U.S. Politics: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

In her concession speech for the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton lamented: “Now, I—I know—I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.” She was addressing American women and the fact that their potential high hopes for a woman president as the ultimate goal of women’s struggle for political equality had been disappointed and suffered a backlash.  Yet, as Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University in a press release on November 11, 2016, also stressed: “The results of Tuesday’s election show us that, when given the opportunity, Americans will vote for a woman for president.” After all, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Walsh also added: “By no means gender bias disappeared from the presidential playing field.” Both the concession speech and Walsh express two essential concerns: first, that a pivotal moment in the history of women and U.S. politics has been reached and, second, that this moment needs to be understood in historical terms. This conference explores both issues. It brings together high-ranking scholars from various disciplines from the United States, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Greece, the Netherlands, and Poland, and will investigate how U.S. politics past and present are conceptualized and practiced in relation to gender.

The main objective of this undertaking is to map the field of women and U.S. politics on the basis of leading international and interdisciplinary scholarship informed by political science, cultural studies (most prominently gender studies), literary studies, and media studies. Special focus will be on politically active women, politics affecting women, and the role of gender in politics.  For example, the 2016 elections witnessed a slight decrease of women governors and female members of Congress after a steady increase in the 1980s and a peak in the 1990s. And yet, Kate Brown made history beyond her home state Oregon last November by becoming the first openly LGBT person to win election as governor in the United States. Several of our speakers will discuss these developments in the context of historical trajectories, gender perceptions, and realpolitik. They will also examine how rhetoric is still being influenced by gender biases and thus impacts voter perception.

Recent studies have called for an integrated interdisciplinary approach in analyzing women’s roles in U.S. politics, pointing out the shortcomings of earlier investigations, which mostly confined themselves to one subject area. Using this as a starting point, the conference features research that analyzes the agency women have possessed in the political sphere in the U.S. from various disciplinary perspectives. It sets out on a diachronic exploration of the role of women in U.S. politics from the Early Republic until today. This includes examinations of fictional and non-fictional negotiations of gendered politics in a range of media, with a special emphasis on minority women.

The symposium is the designated starting point for further interdisciplinary cooperation exploring the role of women in the political sphere of the United States within the American Studies community worldwide.