The Political Reawakening Of The Middle-Aged Suburban White Woman

Harvard professor Theda Skocpol has spent months speaking to some of the most engaged members of the anti-Trump resistance across Middle America, and what she's found might surprise you.
Protesters participate in the Women's March against U.S. President Donald J. Trump in Chicago, United States on Jan. 20, 2018.
Protesters participate in the Women's March against U.S. President Donald J. Trump in Chicago, United States on Jan. 20, 2018.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The nebulous anti-Trump resistance isn’t quite what we think it is. This is one of the conclusions that Theda Skocpol has drawn from her work in the 20 months since the 2016 presidential election.

Skocpol, the longtime government and sociology professor at Harvard University, has been making research trips to eight counties that went for Donald Trump in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as communities across all of Pennsylvania. In suburban America, even in uber-conservative counties, Skocpol began to notice action groups popping up in response to Trump. And she began to notice who was doing the organizing, here in the heart of what the national media have taken to calling Trump Country: women. Specifically older, college-educated white women: “retired teachers, librarians, health care people, some businesswomen,” as Skocpol put it.

“If you’re asking who’s out there, in much of the country are places where there aren’t a huge number of young people and there aren’t racial minorities in large numbers,” she told HuffPost. In those places, “if anybody’s gonna organize, it’s gonna be white people. And throughout American civic history, really, women have been the organizers when it comes to voluntary groups.”

Her analysis doesn’t so much contradict the prevailing narrative of a Democratic Party newly energized by nonwhites and young people as complement it. But Skocpol knows why the popular narrative of the Trump resistance tends to sideline middle-aged suburban white women. “I think that frankly white women are not a glamorous category,” she said. “Let’s face it.”

And there’s also the fact that 52 percent of white female voters went for Trump in 2016, per exit polls. Skocpol acknowledges this, but her research suggests that the political behaviors of these white women have shifted radically in the wake of the election. They are calling on Congress, knocking on doors on behalf of state and local candidates, and in some cases, running for office themselves. “Sociologically, what we are witnessing is an inflection point — a shift in long-standing trends — concentrated in one large demographic group, as college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse,” she wrote in a recent essay co-authored with Lara Putnam.

HuffPost recently spoke with Skocpol about her research into this inflection point. She talked about her coolness toward some of the triumphalism on the left, about the importance of organizing around issues of local concern and avoiding elections that turn on “national abstractions,” and about what the long-term implications of this political awakening might be.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you begin looking into the political behaviors of suburban women on the left?

After the [2016] election, several of us at Harvard mounted a study where we were gonna visit eight counties that went for Trump, two of each in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. When I visited these places initially last spring and summer in 2017, I found these resistance groups had formed in all of them.

That’s just one strand of the research. I study everything from right to left. But it was quite striking. There’s been a lot of speculation in the media about who the resistance is and I think the core of it across much of the country is older white women.

Do you think these particular women have been ignored by media outlets? And if so, why?

Media outlets are in the major metropolitan centers of the most liberal states, for the most part. They’re surrounded by professionally run advocacy groups that, along with many in the Democratic Party, adopted the idea that the future lies with young people and with minorities.

It’s not that that isn’t true in some general sense, although I personally don’t believe in demographic determinism. But if you’re asking who’s out there, in much of the country are places where there aren’t a huge number of young people and there aren’t racial minorities in large numbers. [In those places], if anybody’s gonna organize, it’s gonna be white people.

And throughout American civic history, really, women have been the organizers when it comes to voluntary groups. It’s not only women ― there are some men too, but even the Tea Party back in 2009-2011, a lot of the organizers at the local level were women.

“There’s been a lot of speculation in the media about who the resistance is and I think the core of it across much of the country is older white women.”

- Theda Skocpol, government and sociology professor at Harvard University

Why do you think it is that it’s women we see leading these local charges, on both the left and the right?

Well they were the ones who were most surprised and upset by Trump’s victory. They tend to be people with a lot of practical organizational skills, and I don’t think it’s all that surprising.

What are the major grievances that you’ve found that have sort of driven these women to action?

I don’t think it’s an issue-oriented thing. I think it’s very similar, really, to what I heard from Tea Party people back in 2009, only on the opposite end — the sense that the country’s future is at stake and its identity is at stake. There’s just a whole series of things that a lot of the participants in these grassroots resistance groups are upset about, and they’re upset about policy in a whole series of areas. There is a combination of fear and a sense that fundamental values are being violated.

There’s some tendency to reduce this [pattern of women leading local resistance efforts] to the Me Too movement. I don’t think that’s it. I’m not saying that that’s not something that these women would care about. I think they probably do, but it’s not the main thing going on. Health care was the battle ― that really is one issue battle. That was really important, and it was important during the entire first year, and it just gave all the people involved a chance to speak up, organize, contact representatives, mount community forums, talk about things that had concrete realities in the lives of their friends and neighbors and families. And a lot of these people are in the health professions, or retired from them, or they’re mothers, so they think about health care in terms of personal and family but also community well-being.

I do think it’s interesting to consider that an over-focus on youth activism ― which is wildly important, but not the whole picture of this moment ― has kind of led us to ignore that it’s older women, who are so often considered invisible in our society, who are actually doing much of the work.

And I think that even the post-Parkland youth movement often had these women’s groups in the background. I think some of the research on the public marches suggests that these women were at them, and of course they are also the mothers and grandmothers of a lot of these [young] people. It’s not a knock on young people, but young people tend to be busy! They may not be as attuned to the idea that organizing face-to-face is important, and yet I think even in very conservative places, the people in these resistance groups, a disproportionate 70 percent women, are aware that it is important, even if it’s not the only thing.

You mentioned before the questionnaires from across Pennsylvania that you collected. Are there any specific observations that you can share from that data?

We just finished up a paper for the American Sociological Association, my graduate student Leah Gose and I, drawing from that data as well as from the eight counties, field interviews and observations. We’re just getting going. The questionnaires across Pennsylvania are from groups in all parts of the state in all types of communities. [And across the board] the patterns are about the same.

[The organizers are] about three-quarters women ― women from their 30s to their 70s and they’re retired teachers or librarians, health care people, some businesswomen. And a lot of these groups really have organized apart from the Democratic Party. They may vote for Democrats, but they’re not part of the Democratic Party directly, and they often include some people who are fed-up Republicans and Independents.

So they tend to be in that more centrist Democratic group but not part of the establishment?

I don’t know whether I would say centrist. I would say that their members and participants and followers and sympathizers range from center to left. That’s different from the Tea Party, which was mostly to the right of the Republican party.

It’s just a myth that this is all about far-left stuff. We don’t find Bernie people. Let me be careful. We find Bernie voters are in some of these groups. Not particularly interested in having that argument anymore. But we don’t find Bernie organizations. I haven’t found even a whiff of Our Revolution. I think that’s mainly a big-city, liberal-area phenomenon. The reason that this is all important is the first question that I had in mind when I discovered what I found in the field and then looked at this more broadly: Is this gonna be widespread enough that it’ll create an organized presence in more than just the liberal metropolitan and college city places? Because if the Democrats don’t have that, they’re not gonna win.

Did you conclude that, yes, it will?

Yes. [The anti-Trump resistance] is very widespread ― surprisingly widespread. [I] have found 10 groups in these eight counties, and four of the counties are extremely Republican, very conservative. It’s so conservative that when people first started out [organizing], I think some were afraid to have their names in the paper, but I’ve now visited two of these places twice and the sense of fear is gone.

It’s not that they’re gonna convert those counties. They’re not. But they’re going to change the conversations and change the margins. We’re seeing people running [on the left] everywhere. I can speak to North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Even in conservative places where Democrats were not on the ballot for state legislative or congressional offices, they are now. That makes a difference, because if you don’t run, you don’t have any chance to win and you also don’t have any chance to contribute to the conversation. The difference it makes is to create a situation in which people in these places, even very conservative places, will know people who are speaking up. They will know who they are. They will see them as members of their own community rather than somewhere off far away.

To read some of the stuff in the media, you would think that Democratic America or Democratic Party or liberal America or anti-Trump America consisted of California, New York and Massachusetts. There’s a lot of presidential candidates who want us to think that way, but actually I think the anti-Trump organized resistance is extremely widespread.

You’ve written in Democracy Journal about how these local groups in middle America could “reboot democracy.” What was the reaction to that piece?

After we published that article, we got messages from women all over the country, very conservative places in a lot of cases, saying, “Thank you for finally noticing.” I remember one woman I interviewed in Ohio last year said to me that she kept trying to get in touch with Democrats to see whether there was some cooperation. They would say they were looking for an app to reach young people. She said she’s all for reaching young people, but we’re the ones doing it. They’re not noticing us. I think that, frankly, white women are not a glamorous category. Let’s face it.

I had one person say to me, “Didn’t white women elect Donald Trump?” This kind of tendency to think in these broad demographic categories makes absolutely no sense when you actually go out and talk to human beings in places, because there are people from all these categories on all sides.

But we do know from the national polls that women have moved. Women with college degrees have moved in their attitudes.

They have moved left in their attitudes?

Oh, yeah. Well, they’ve moved against whatever it is that Trump stands for, against Trumpism.

Given that women are organizing politically across the country, do you think that this means that we’ll be seeing more women not just running for office but also winning elected office? Are we gonna see a movement toward greater gender parity in our politics?

Probably, because some of these pieces generated women running for office. All of them have generated people who are knocking on doors. [But these groups] support white men, too. Conor Lamb [who won a House seat in Pennsylvania in March] had these women knocking on doors for him. Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia ― remember the left said he was boring, not progressive. He wouldn’t win or he wouldn’t win by much of a margin. He won by nine percentage points. He’s the kind of decent man, and I don’t think most of these groups are trying to define goodness as only women.

In fact, a couple of [these groups] I know about have refused chances to turn themselves only into women’s groups because they want men to be involved, too. A lot of the men that are involved that I see in the meetings I go to are the husbands of these women.

So these groups grow through community and family connections.

Yeah. They’re partners or they’re co-workers, and sometimes there are men in leading roles. I think it’s kind of the way liberal America looks. It is disproportionately female, but it’s not as if there aren’t a lot of men.

I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people across the [political] spectrum, including Tea Partiers, and I think the difference that it makes to visit places the way I’ve done is that the abstractions fall away. After every special election we have another debate. Does Conor Lamb mean that the Democrats are moving moderate? Does [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] in the Bronx mean that they’re moving left? They’re not moving either way. These candidates are suited to their districts, and they’re tied to networks, and they have these groups of women and men in the resistance working for them.

I was going ask you what you thought about the reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in NY-14.

I don’t think it’s entirely surprising, but I definitely think it’s being overplayed. She obviously mounted a grassroots campaign that appealed to the people that are the new people in that area. I’d be willing to bet that most of those that voted for her had no idea that [her opponent Joe Crowley] was No. 4 in the Democratic Party hierarchy. I have to admit, I’m a political scientist, but I didn’t know he was No. 4 in the Democratic Party. This is not some rebellion against the Democratic Party. This is what we’re seeing in lots of places, which is that the candidate that taps into local networks and is prepared to run on a somewhat more grassroots and more unconventional campaign can knock off whoever.

And I don’t think it’s the policy stands. Of course in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, everybody has suddenly decided the Democrats are for abolishing ICE, which I have to tell you in most of the places I’ve visited is a total loser as an idea. It’s not that [the people I’ve spoken to] like ICE, but that concept is just too abstract. I don’t even know what it means, frankly. It’s a ridiculous slogan.

So you feel like these local races are more indicative of who people are in those local communities rather than pointing to a clear national narrative?

Yeah. For the Democrats it’s very dangerous, and that’s why this Supreme Court thing [of pushing swing state Senators to vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation] is dangerous. It tends to move the campaign for the midterms into a national abstraction, and national abstractions favor the right. It’s much better to be concrete, to speak to important issues in different local areas, and that’s what a lot of these special election victors have in common. They may not have the same race. They may not have the same gender. They may look more or less conservative or more or less progressive, but they’re in tune with what matters in their districts or their states.

“National abstractions favor the right. It’s much better to be concrete, to speak to important issues in different local areas, and that’s what a lot of these special election victors have in common.”

- Theda Skocpol, government and sociology professor at Harvard University

What do you think national organizations can and should take away from these patterns?

They should avoid over-abstraction. That’s for sure. There are a lot of national organizations that have emerged that say they’re supporting “the resistance.” Sometimes I wonder how much the people that are organizing locally really need them. Most of the local groups leverage resources from different places without necessarily aligning behind anybody.

Their most important resource is the willingness of people to pitch in, which actually can’t be created by money. Money can help. It can provide some things. It can support statewide networks, regional networks, but you can’t substitute for people and their willingness to say there’s stuff that we need to do and it’s an emergency and we need to be active.

What do you see as the long-term implications of this inflection point?

It’s hard to say. We’re tracking it. In some places, some of these people will be elected to office. In some places, they’re taking over the local Democratic Parties or at least they’re elected to them, to their committees. But it’s an open question in my mind whether they’ll have as much impact as the Tea Party grassroots had on the Republican party.

And for the average reader, someone who might read this interview, what should they take away from what you’re finding?

Find out what groups are active in your area and pitch in. And if you live in a very liberal place, take part in some of the groups that are teaming up with moderate areas of the country and support their efforts.

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