Last week, the Internet gathered, in delight and shock, to discuss two apparently brand-new revelations: First, contrary to popular supposition, women do not magically evaporate from the public sphere upon entering their forties. Secondly, some of the poor old dears actually do activism.
In fact, as per a poll commissioned by progressive advocacy site Daily Action, middle-aged women are doing nearly all the activism these days. The company, which texts daily alerts reminding users to contact Congressional representatives, says that the members who responded to the poll were 86% female — and, significantly, over 60% were older than age 46. Most had attended a Women’s March, and the vast majority (77%) described themselves as “very likely” to publicly protest Donald Trump’s administration and policies in the near future.
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Much of the discussion around this report, particularly from male commentators, was politely baffled. Jeff Stein of Vox called the data “fascinating,” and marveled that “angry young white men may be blowing up your social media, but middle-aged women/moms [are] doing the real grunt work.” Shane Savitsky of Axios informed his followers that “your mom might be playing a huge part in the anti-Trump movement.” (I don’t know about you, Shane, but my mom also knows how to use Twitter. Might want to re-think those pronouns.) This reaction, though it was well intentioned, was grating. This data simply should not shock us. The dynamic Stein describes—men writing Twitter essays and women making phone calls, men as the faces of the movement and women as its faceless foot soldiers—is exactly how things have worked for a very long time.
Of course, this is self-reported data from one platform, and doesn’t necessarily represent the totality of progressive activism. But it’s worth noting, especially since women are sometimes dinged for their unwillingness to participate in “politics”—usually construed to mean running for office. That accusation rests on a very specific idea of political engagement. Rejigger your definitions, and the picture changes considerably.
By a variety of political metrics, women are doing more of the work. Women register to vote more often than men, and are more likely to vote once they’ve registered. Women are more likely to do volunteer work. Women make the vast majority of charitable donations; in fact, as per Debra Mesch of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, “women give more than their male peers at virtually all income levels, even though women in general earn less.” At the local level, women are far more likely than men to attend religious services and to join religious groups—which Pew Research tells us is an indicator of civic engagement—and slightly more likely to be involved in neighborhood associations. Finally, and most predictably: As of 2009, 90% of all PTA members were female.
This is not glamorous stuff. It is, in fact, mom stuff; making sure that children are schooled and people are fed, that the church fundraiser goes off well and the new mayor is more competent, that the park gets a new fence, that the Goodwill gets the old clothes, and that the daily wheel of life more or less rolls on, in all its boring glory. Which is to say, we assign women the work of community; all the daily, unremarkable social and political engagement that keeps groups of people bound together as a coherent whole, and thereby makes civic life possible. Women are expected to do all this for the same reason that they’re still expected to do the lion’s share of parenting, or to take care of aging relatives, or to do most of the chores; because they’re “just better at it,” because no-one else wants to do it, because the willingness to provide this labor, for free, is some essential part of how we construe being feminine.
And, because it is feminine, it is dismissed. None of this work is what we see as “leadership,” and none of these women, especially as they age, fit our images of “leaders.” Barricade-mounting and enraged-speech-giving and Nazi-punching and office-holding — all the positions we actually associate with “politics”—are assumed to be beyond them. Instead, middle-aged women are stereotyped as terminally bland soccer moms, oversharing mommybloggers and prudish neighborhood busybodies, harried non-entities who “try too hard to be cool” and whose idea of fun is “always having snacks on the counter.” Throughout the 2016 election, the media made a constant fuss about their irrelevance and their political ineptitude when compared to their supposedly more progressive millennial daughters.
This is where the benign, patronizing shock around the poll numbers comes in. How could meek little Barb or Pam, or anyone else afflicted by God with such terminal lack of flavor, turn out to be the face of anti-fascist resistance in America?
Again: She always has been.
It would be more shocking if the majority of women involved in the anti-Trump protests actually fit the “white soccer mom” stereotype. That is, at least in part, because it would be shocking if most of them were white; though the Daily Action survey doesn’t segment its data by race, we know that only 4% of black women voted for Donald Trump, whereas 52% of white women did. Plus, older women vote more than younger women, and they are more likely to have money to donate or children to tie them to a community.
But, most importantly, time is not static. “Old lady” stereotypes aside, today’s moms are likely to have more direct experience of radical activism than their daughters. A 64-year-old woman, in 2017, has a birth date of 1953. She has directly witnessed—or actively participated in—both the mid-century civil rights movement and feminism’s second wave. She is more likely to identify as feminist than any other age group, and she is more likely to vote for political candidates based on their gender politics. She is also the most likely to advocate for women’s rights by taking measures such as—surprise!—calling or writing her representatives.
This isn’t to slight younger women; they come in a very close second in the Most Feminist Generation sweepstakes. It’s simply to demonstrate how easily women’s political work can be ignored or obscured, hidden away by our presumptions about what—and who—qualifies as an “activist.” Indeed, even as the media whipped up the catfight of the century between millennial feminists and their second-wave mothers, the same pattern of gendered labor was repeating itself: In one 2013 survey, women under 30 were already volunteering more, donating more, voting more, and joining community groups more than their male peers. In fact, young women were outstripping men on every measure of “civic participation” but one: “Talking about politics with friends and family frequently.” That one, the boys had covered.
Unfortunately, we happen to live in a society that perceives “leadership” qualities in the guy doing all the talking, not the girl doing all the work. We applaud the man giving the speech, not the woman making sure there are enough chairs for everyone in the audience; the dude who pens a single scathing Medium essay, not the woman showing up every night to phone bank; the charismatic male candidate, not his female campaign manager.
Making a daily phone call to one’s representative—taking ten minutes out of a lunch break to be one of twelve people on hold, staying appropriately polite for a 30-second conversation about voting against Betsy DeVos or Syrian intervention or whatever is on the menu today—is exactly the sort of granular, incremental, everyday work that women are socialized to take on themselves. It’s also one of the more immediately effective forms of protest out there. In the midst of the crisis that is the Trump administration, it should not be surprising that women would, once again, step in and do the pragmatic, everyday work of keeping their communities safe. What is surprising is that we still don’t expect them to do it — or that we simply didn’t notice them doing it in the background all this time.
If we knew how to value those women, to notice and spotlight all the unheeded background work that keeps resistance running, we might have a very different idea of “leadership” — and a very different picture of who actually runs (and saves) the world.