January 3 2012

Gender Roles: Women Should Choose to Caucus

Sabrina Schaeffer

Yesterday The Washington Post launched a new online forum about women, politics and culture: She The People. Melinda Henneberger, former Politics Daily editor-in-chief, edits the blog, and its contributors are a host of political writers largely from the WaPo, including columnist Kathleen Parker. There’s value in a conversation about “the world as women see it;” but the theme of one of today’s blogs deserves some pushback.

Karen Tumulty, a political reporter for the paper, writes “Disenfranchised in Des Moines: who gets left out of the Iowa cacuses?” I tuned into the post, so to speak, because the question of which is more democratic, caucus or primary is a long standing debate in political circles. There is a dual concern: numbers of participants and quality of participation. While primaries allow greater numbers of people to partake in the voting process, delegates who participate in a caucus spend a lot of time listening to speeches by candidates, talking to party leaders, and working together with other party members to select a candidate.

Still this is not what Tumulty addresses in her post. She writes:

What we often overlook, however, is how many people are effectively shut out from the process--say, people who work the evening shift, or who cannot easily find child care on a school night.

Tumulty picks up on one of the many challenges of voter turnout. Americans have busy lives and sometimes it can be difficult to get to the polls (or the caucus, as in the case here). That’s why some suggest easier registration and absentee voting, others have called for making Election Day a holiday, some even suggest having fewer elections.

To make her point, Tumulty points to an email she received from a WaPo reader who complained that, “Caucus time was smack in the middle of bed time for small children,” He added, “We met mothers who put feeding, bathing, praying with, and tucking in their kids ahead of sorting out America’s politics. The timing and time span of the caucuses tends to exclude a part of the electorate with a deep interest in America’s future.”

The reader makes a fine point, but we ought to avoid implying – as Tumulty clearly does – that the Iowa caucus disenfranchises women who are otherwise needed at home. For starters, the caucus is one night every four years – hardly a major time commitment. What’s more is there is always going to be something interfering with voting: a work assignment that keeps someone at the office late, a school play, grocery shopping, a trip to the gym, and on and on. And we can hardly claim that this is a problem unique for women, or mothers.

What’s more – and this is where Tumulty could have been a little more thoughtful in her discussion – is that some would argue caucusing, and “sorting out American politics,” is very much a mother’s role.

As I’ve written about before, at the time of the American Founding, women helped secure a new social order in which liberty and the public good were the objectives, by ensuring that their husbands adhered to, and that their children were raised with, republican principles. Historian Linda Kerber later described this role of women in the early republic as “Republican Motherhood.”

Today, traditional republican motherhood – in which women served on the sidelines as political and moral compasses for men – is obsolete. But the value of women helping to sort out American politics is certainly just as necessary as it was in the late 18th century. The only difference is that today women have the opportunity to play an active role in political affairs, including caucusing or voting.

While Tumulty laments the fact that “many cannot share” in this “quirky process,” she misses an opportunity to explain that this might be one night where families might shift their priorities. Because tonight, putting the kids to bed might not be as important as participating in the democratic process.

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