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Julia Nitz and Axel R. Schäfer, eds., "Women and US Politics: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Essays in Honor of Hans-Jürgen Grabbe" (Heidelberg: Winter, 2020), 299 pp.:

Julia Nitz and Axel R. Schäfer, eds., Women and US Politics: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Essays in Honor of Hans-Jürgen ­Grabbe (Heidelberg: Winter, 2020), 299 pp.

As the United States celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it lags behind 66 nations in the percentage of women in elective offices (IPU). After a century of formal equality in citizenship, the United States ties with Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and Mali in percentage of seats held by women (27 %) in the national legislature (IPU). Even the historic inauguration of Kamala Harris to the office of Vice President in 2021 pales in comparison to the records of 75 women who have been elected to the highest executive office—president or prime minister—in 60 nations since 1960 (O’Neill). Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated effort to join the elite group of women political leaders encountered a barrage of misogyny unparalleled in advanced democracies.

In this volume, international scholars across a range of disciplines (cultural studies, history, literary studies, media studies, and political science) investigate this glaring paradox: the nation that claims to be the world’s leading democracy consistently fails to achieve meaningful political equality for women who comprise 52 % of the population and who have outvoted men in every presidential election since 1980 (CAWP).

Two chapters analyze the complex factors that contributed to Clinton’s 2016 defeat, despite winning three million votes more than Donald Trump. Philip John Davies provides a comprehensive overview of competing accounts of Trump’s unexpected victory. Although he acknowledges persistent gender bias in media coverage (e. g., 19 % of Clinton’s media coverage emphasized the Benghazi emails scandal, while only 15 % of Trump’s coverage focused on the far more numerous scandals surrounding him), Davies notes that party allegiance provides a far better explanation of the 2016 vote. Although there are fewer registered Republican voters than registered Democrats, the Republicans gained 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 11 governorships, and 913 seats in state legislatures during the eight years that President Obama was in office. Using tactics that range from gerrymandering electoral districts to purging voter rolls as a means of voter suppression, Republicans have actively molded electoral regulations and institutions to consolidate their advantage, contributing to two Electoral College victories (2000, 2016) despite fewer popular votes.

Sabine Sielke suggests, however, that something more than partisan politics is required to explain the 2016 vote. Although discussion of the gender gap (54 % of women voters supported Clinton compared to 41 % of male voters) makes it sound like women formed a solid voting bloc, disaggregated data tells a very different story. When race and level of education are analyzed, 61 % of White women without college education, 44 % of White women with college degrees, 26 % of Latinas and 4 % of Black women voted for Trump. Sielke identifies “misogyny as a mindset” that can explain both the gender gap and White women voters’ 9 % greater support for Trump than for Clinton (52 % to 43 %). Whether confronting sexist stereotypes (assumptions about women’s inferiority or emotionality) or positive notions about women’s unique leadership style (more maternal, moral, caring, collaborative), women candidates must calibrate their self-presentation and their media strategies to counter gender bias. Studies have shown that women candidates receive less coverage and are treated less seriously by the media. Journalists foreground women’s family responsibilities and fashion choices, but not men’s. Even sympathetic reporters tend to link women candidates to traditional women’s issues such as health, education, and welfare, subtly raising suspicions about their ability to deal with finance, the economy, international relations, crime, agriculture, and national defense. Moreover, ageism affects women more powerfully than men, despite the fact that women on average live longer. Populating the minds of men and women, such notions constitute a tacit pro-male bias that can derail the electoral prospects of even the most talented women candidates.

Analyzing the memoirs of four African American Congresswomen (Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Barbara Lee, and Cynthia McKinney), Gabriele Linke shows how successful women candidates have navigated such hurtles. Acknowledging that the modes of self-fashioning in these texts are themselves political constructs devised to serve particular purposes, Linke nonetheless calls attention to certain tropes that surface in all of them. Crafting a narrative of overcoming obstacles created by structural racism and sexism, each Congresswoman recounts experiences of discrimination, segregation, poverty, harassment, and violence that triggered her early political activism. Inspired by a long history of race men and women, who seek to lift as they climb, each also recounts a critical role played by her father or grandfather who modeled how to fight back and encouraged them to take on the system. Anger at persistent injustice fuels their political ascent and their policy priorities as they struggle to transform the vast inequities that permeate communities of Color.

One of the many strengths of this collection is that it expands the conceptualization of women and politics in innovative ways. Traditional approaches often focus on absence—the underrepresentation of women in elective office—construing the field in terms of political representation, advancing a case for demographic representation and linking it to substantive representation on the supposition that more women in office will do a better job at speaking and acting for women. Multiple contributors to this volume shift their analyses from political representation (Vertreten) to explore a complex set of questions related to constitutive representation (Darstellen). They examine how historical, literary, and visual depictions of women in popular culture help constitute and sustain gendered asymmetries in political life.

Marianne Wokeck examines how presumptions about women’s intellectual inferiority circulating among republican “revolutionaries” in the eighteenth century and their insistence on the domestication of women enabled the founding fathers to frame public leadership as a male preserve, while erasing the vibrant leadership roles performed by women such as Ann Hutchinson, Margaret Brent, and Maria van Courtlandt van Rensselaer during the earlier colonial period, as well as Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Mercy Otis Warren during the independence struggle.

In the nineteenth century, by contrast, Volker Depkat traces how entrenched discourses concerning “Republican motherhood” operated as a semiotic system that could impugn the authority of certain leaders. Examining political cartoons that featured men in women’s attire, Depkat points out that caricatures of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, donning his wife’s dress and bonnet to escape capture by Union forces not only impugn Davis’s masculinity but imply cowardice, treason, weakness, and devilishness—traits often associated with femininity. Conversely, cartoons depicting 1840 Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in women’s garb represented a markedly different register of republican values. Dressed as the caring and resourceful republican frontier mother, Harrison used a broom to chase away Democratic Party elites corrupted by wealth and monarchical designs. By creating a link between domestic morality and Whig political values, the Whigs were the first party to recruit women to rallies and campaign activities, appealing to them as republican mothers to influence votes of their sons. In so doing, the Whigs gave women a new presence in public life that cannot be measured in terms of voting rights or formal participation.
Reading Edith Wharton’s works against the grain, Theodora Tsimpouki shows how an author renowned for nostalgia for old world values might open up new possibilities for women by subtly challenging traditional divisions of public and private spaces. Through her discussion of architecture, interior design, museums, and female connoisseurship, Wharton envisioned a way for affluent women to accredit themselves “as knowers, creators and actors rather than as consumers of material culture, items on display, or spectacles of leisure” by contouring public spaces to allow men and women to interact on equal grounds.

Manfred Berg demonstrates how Woodrow Wilson’s predilection for the ideals of Victorian womanhood fostered his antipathy toward the “radical” suffragists of the National Woman’s Party who dared protest outside the White House and impugn his democratic credentials. Yet, at the same time that he allowed the arrest, imprisonment, and force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragists, Wilson negotiated with Carrie Chapman Catt, agreeing to support the cause of women’s suffrage. Catt’s support for the war effort and deployment of a purity discourse insisting that White women’s heightened morality would strengthen the established racial and gender order aligned with Wilson’s expectations concerning respectable femininity and spurred him to reverse his stance and support suffrage.

Introducing a comparative frame, Frank Mehring considers the work done by visualizations of “Rosie the Riveter” during WWII in the United States and Germany. Intentionally designed in both countries to encourage women “to step outside their comfort zones, enter labor force, and feel empowered to fight for a higher cause,” these propaganda campaigns were markedly successful in overriding traditional gendered divisions of labor. Their long-term empowering capacity, however, differed markedly with the outcome of the war. Where women in the United States could take pride in their war work even as they were demobilized postwar, the shame of association with Nazi objectives left German women workers burdened with a legacy of guilt.

Carmen Birkle and Brigitte Georgi Findlay explore how film and television portrayals of women presidents structure popular expectations about women’s ability to fulfill the demands of the presidency. Analyzing an extensive repertoire of Hollywood’s cultural productions, the authors concur that the vast preponderance of images are negative, ranging from the wild incompetence manifested in Veep, which suggests that a woman cannot do the job, to the unprincipled manipulation and power machinations in House of Cards, which warns that deceitful women ought not be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office. Multiple factors contribute to the failures of fictive women presidents. They are often undone by the incompatible demands of work and family: success in one sphere necessarily implies failure in the other. They are pawns of other Washington power brokers, whom they may occasionally obstruct but can never outmaneuver. They waste time on either dysfunctional manipulations or naïve humanitarian quests and must be saved by resourceful male staff. And as a warning to any woman who might have the temerity to run for high office, these shows make it clear that their lives will be made miserable: each day they will encounter innumerable immiserating snares.

Other contributors to the collection probe the difficulties facing those who aspire to transform the gendered dynamics of political life. Using diverse methodologies, the authors investigate Michelle Obama’s stylistic engagement with White supremacy, toxic masculinity, racism, and gender policing; Dorothy Day’s life-long efforts to redress poverty and promote social justice; Charmian Kittredge’s success in reorienting Jack London’s values from U.S. imperialism and macho politics to racial and gender egalitarianism and ecology; Hannah Arendt’s attempt to avoid totalitarianism by entrenching an unbridgeable divide between the “social” and the “political”; and Sally Mann’s photography that seeks to envision an alternative way of seeing, freed from the racialized and sexualized visual economy that haunts the American eye.

Taken in consort, the chapters in this rich and insightful volume challenge readers to rethink the scope of the political, the racial, and gender dynamics at play in cultural production and the enormous complexities of political representation.

Mary Hawkesworth (Rutgers University)

Works Cited


“Women Voters and the Gender Gap.” Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Eagleton Institute for Politics. Web. 12 Dec. 2021.


“Monthly Ranking of Women in National Parliaments.” Interparliamentary Union (IPU), Interparliamentary Union. Web. 12 Dec. Nov. 2021.


O’Neill, Aaron. “Number of Countries with Women in Highest Position of Executive Power, 1960-2021.” Statista, Statista. 25 Nov. 2021. Web. 12 Dec. 2021.

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