Understanding the Spectacle of Children Separated at the Border: A History
In May and June of 2018, the world watched as Donald Trump’s administration separated immigrant children from their parents. Most migrants were refugees seeking asylum. Rather than the orderly process demanded by U.S. and international law, they found terror and chaos in the U.S. The family separations became a spectacle, and some in Trump’s political base actively cheered. Republican Party operative and CNN contributor Rick Wilson said:
“[Trump’s] core supporters want anybody who’s darker than a latte deported. They’re not happy about immigration of any kind. They don’t believe in the asylum process. They want to take and separate these families as a matter of deterrence and as a sort of theater of cruelty.”
For many commentators—left, liberal, even some Republicans like Wilson—this was a dumpster fire of a “transformation” in our national racial politics. Just as the president had refused to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville for the murder of Heather Heyer, now critics saw echoes of Nazism in the U.S. child separation policy that put children in converted prisons and tent cities. To immigrant advocates, white nationalism seemed to motivate both. Stephen Miller, the spokesperson for the alt-right in the administration, was apparently the architect of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy.
But critics didn’t have to go to Europe and the Nazis for examples. As others have noted, there are plenty of precedents in the United States for this policy that are more relevant to this moment. From Andrew Jackson’s effort to drive Native peoples out of lands settled by Europe’s descendants to his vice president, John Calhoun’s, insistence that slavery was integral to the institutions of the United States, the belief that this is a white nation is firmly rooted here.
White ethno-nationalism isn’t new to the U.S. It’s just nineteenth century.
This isn’t even the first time that images of children taken from their parents have inflamed U.S. politics. In the national crisis of child separation, both opponents and supporters of family separation were working off of nineteenth-century scripts. In fact, this unburied legacy is part of what made the whole thing so emotional. Consider how similar this image, below, which abolitionists used to make the case for ending racial slavery, is to those we’ve seen on the nightly news and newspapers’ front pages in the last year.
These images were staples of abolitionist literature because, as slavery’s opponents had no access to the levers of power from the courts to the legislatures to the White House (until Lincoln’s election), through which they might end slavery. Many of slavery’s opponents, including all women and most Black freedmen, were not even allowed to vote. And so they relied on stories and images to change hearts and minds. Over and over, they told dramatic stories of weeping mothers and children torn apart. “My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me,” Charles Ball wrote of the day his mother was sold away from him. “I never again heard the voice of my poor mother.” Abolitionists, Black and white, wrote about scenes from plantations and auction blocks, and these sentimental stories became one of the most effective tools abolitionists had. Indeed, in the 1850s, in a failed bid to protect slavery from reformers, Southern states actually began to ban separating infants from their mothers.
On the opposite side, we can look to another nineteenth-century tradition, the practice of passing around “before and after” images of Native children sent to Indian boarding schools as trophies of Jacksonian white supremacy. The first Indian Boarding School was started by Richard Pratt, an infantry officer, who was encouraged by the War Department to use the techniques he had perfected in “breaking” prisoners from the Indian Wars at Fort Marion, Florida—essentially the Guantanamo Bay of its day. Taking children “as hostages for the good behavior of their people”— Pratt arranged for children to be removed from Native communities in the Plains and the Southwest and transported to the Carlisle Indian School Pennsylvania. School officials cut their hair, punished them for speaking indigenous languages, subjected them to military drills, and mixed children from different, sometimes mutually hostile, tribal nations. Some tried to run away or return home on foot, and these were kept for longer periods. The school hired a photographer to chronicle their transformation from savages to civilized, as they shed buckskin and beads for suits, ties, and dresses. The photos were turned in souvenirs, passed from hand to hand and sold everywhere, much as lynching photos would be decades later. In them, we see a tradition of organized loathing not at all dissimilar from the hate aimed at Central American immigrants today. Like those who traded Pratt’s transformation photos, they would watch and thrill to video and photos of asylum-seekers’ children taken away at our borders.
Where the abolitionist images were effective in building opposition to slavery, the Indian School photos had the opposite intent: persuading people of the value of boarding schools in transforming Native people from tribalized enemy savages to civilized subjects that would return home and civilize their peoples in turn. Together with the Dawes Act, the Indian Schools sought to turn citizens of tribal nations into a collection of nuclear families. Even as opponents publicized the Schools’ inadequate nutrition, forced labor, widespread illiteracy, and endemic disease, the photographic evidence of this settler colonial project’s effectiveness won the day against Native peoples’ protests.
From demonstrations in the halls of Congress to banners on the walls of churches, today’s latter-day abolitionists have drawn on this anti-slavery legacy, even as people like Stephen Miller followed the visual and rhetorical strategies that call to mind the Indian-killing tradition. Some Twitter users and journalists directly cited this abolitionist prehistory; more just recognized the historically wrought emotional wallop that separation images carried. Some reiterated a specifically gendered trope of mothers separated from babies and children; others told stories of fathers.
These abolitionist drawings, boarding school photos, and immigrant images and videos are not ephemeral oddities. They’ve survived and are now all over the Internet because they show us an archive of activism and emotion, both for and against white nationalism.
The Indian school photos are a record of a genocidal fantasy that Native people could be made to disappear. That project failed, both demographically and in the schools themselves, which ultimately became the cradle of American Indian pan-tribal activism, but Pratt’s dictum that they had to “kill the Indian to save the man” reminds us of the intention—as do the cemeteries on boarding schools’ grounds. It’s the same wish that’s behind the effort to place children separated at the border in adoptive white families, a project that is only intensifying at present.
The nineteenth-century abolitionists are still with us, too. Through their images, they taught today’s activists how to fight against the “zero tolerance” policy that put children, even nursing infants, in cages. Whatever fresh horrors will spring from the efforts to promulgate a white nationalist border policy—and sending troops to the border certainly raises legal and ethical questions—stopping the separation of children was and remains important, even if it ended with many of those same children in immigrant detention, albeit with their families, and the right to asylum still under severe threat.
As hunting season moves into full swing across America, GPR’s Debra Fitzpatrick interviews Alexander Brown, co-founder of Expedition Outside, and Jennifer Bernstein with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California about the exclusionary history of hunting, contemporary efforts to attract more women to the sport and the implications of an overall decline in hunting on state and national conservation efforts.
Debra Fitzpatrick: Welcome Alexander Brown, cofounder of Expedition Outside and a lifelong camper and hunter and native of Colorado now living in the South, and Jennifer Bernstein with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. Let’s start with a little bit of history on hunting.
Jennifer Bernstein: Sure. So, hunting is an activity that is very laden with rhetorical symbolism in the United States and elsewhere, often in the context of it being a tradition that’s being lost. And Alex will talk a little more about how this is true. We’ve got the numbers to back that up. But, at the same time, one of the ways in which we started engaging was what is the role of hunting in a world that’s thoroughly modern?
We can’t go back and pretend that we’re in the Pleistocene, not necessarily that our Pleistocene ancestors had a perfect relationship with wildlife and ecosystems that they managed, but what does hunting and our relationship with animals mean now when we’re dealing with issues of climate change and we’re not really looking at animals and we don’t really have the choice as to whether or not we want to go back in time and live in this idealized hunter-gatherer society.
We have a world where animals are being driven from conservation areas due to climate change, where species are very carefully managed by wildlife managers, especially at the state level. Geographer Jim Crestwell wrote a book called In Place, Out of Place, and a lot of animal geographers have taken that concept to look at where we expect animals to be, and where they shouldn’t be. So, it’s okay to have animals as pets and animals on farms, and animals in zoos, and then animals may be out in the wilderness; but, when coyotes are walking around downtown Los Angeles, that animals is out of place. And we’ve seen multiple instances where our way of reacting to animals when they’re not in the place that they may have been traditionally, or what we think of as traditionally, makes us humans react in a way that may not be so measured or well thought out. But we’re wrestling with this idea of how do we create this new ethical paradigm. In a world that is thoroughly modern, where does this traditional activity of hunting fit in?
Alexander Brown: I think the history of hunting is so fascinating in the U.S. and often tied back to a very unlikely meeting between an environmentalist and a more traditional hunter/environmentalist, Teddy Roosevelt. And to Jen’s point, I think that the American population back in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s viewed wildlife as a resource. And they really viewed a lot of predator or apex animals as threats, so it’s interesting to see this evolution or change in the way we view animals.
When we talk about hunting in the context of our history, it’s important to note that, and like in a lot of our history, as we start to examine it we see that certain groups were excluded from these stories and it’s very sad or, perhaps, just a reflection of our own history books, but you don’t see a lot of female hunters historically highlighted.
You don’t read about female hunters, and so, I think that’s an interesting node and I think we’re all more aware now as we’ve started to study history, how important it is that we look back honestly and candidly and take a look at who participated.
Jennifer: I want to talk a little bit too about the conservation era. Many people think of conservationism as the beginning of American environmentalism. And, within this movement it was largely driven by sportsmen who were looking to preserve, not necessarily wilderness but to preserve land with various megafauna that they wanted to hunt for sport. It was a way of making sure that they would have animals and wildlife to be able to pursue their hobby. And, it did largely consist of men. Some women were involved in the early conservation movement in the context of exotic bird feathers for hats, and sort of an awareness in which fashion was decimating populations. But some of the ways in which hunting is being revitalized now hearkens back to that conservationist era, and I think it would be remiss to talk about the ways in which that era had a lot of strengths in terms of setting a precedent for responsible outdoors personship in the U.S., but at the same time, it did have all the trappings that people still accuse environmentalism of.
It had a big white guy problem, and these folks tended to be preserving land and species not necessarily for the good of the land or for the species.
Of course, you can’t divorce your hobby from that, but at the same time, it was a lot more in the model of Gifford Pinchot, the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest amount of time. How do we steward these populations so that we can hunt in the future and have landscapes that we like hanging around in, rather than preserving, in sort of the simplified, dichotomized John Muir sense of wilderness just being important for its own sake? So, I think the environmental movement, more broadly, has changed a lot since 1930, obviously, and become a lot more urban and inclusive of things like race and class and ethnicity. And so, as we try to mine the best aspects of the conservation movement, I don’t think that we can do that and remain blind to the ways in which that movement didn’t recognize these multiple groups that were out there but we just, perhaps, haven’t really painted into the picture in a way that we should have or could have.
Debra: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the current state of hunting in the U.S. but especially when it comes to gender and politics.
Alexander: We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of hunters, and perhaps, even more, alarming for those that have followed this is that a percentage of the adult population that hunt. So, just to kind of frame that on a longer-term view. Since the early 1990’s in about 1990, 1991, about 7% of the adult population hunted. We are somewhere near around 4 percent today of the adult population hunting. So, a pretty significant decline in percentage and in actual numbers, from about 15 million hunters to 11.5 million hunters. And I think what’s perhaps most interesting in those numbers is that when they break that out by gender, you see one kind of shining growth in the hunting population, and it’s interesting because it’s actually women hunters.
Although we’ve seen declines in almost every category, women are picking up their bow and arrow and they’re also picking up their rifles or shotguns to go hunting.
So that has been quite interesting. I think when you look at the actual numbers, what you see is probably similar to conversations about other demographic cliffs. And what I mean by that is that what you see is mostly baby boomers in their mid 50’s who are by far the largest participants in the percentage of overall hunting, and they are aging out of hunting. They’re getting too old or are passing away, or whatever, and so now you’ve got to replace those hunters, and women are now about one in five hunters, roughly, and I think it’s pretty exciting from a gender standpoint.
I’ve spoken to a friend of mine who runs Hunt Like a Mom; she’s a full-time mom, and she’s got a job as well and in addition to running Hunt Like a Mom. Even with all of the inroads in the last 15 years with women becoming the fastest growing demographic and now being a pretty significant portion of the hunting population, that there’s still some aversion to having women out-hunt their husband or boyfriend. And it’s hard for men, I think, to acknowledge that their significant other is a great hunter or perhaps even a more accomplished or better hunter than them. What I think we’re seeing right now, though, is hunting is actually empowering women. Or fly fishing, even. It is empowering women to break down stereotypes. And what she told me, Jackie Guccini is her name, she said she was raised in the South and she was always taught that women were physically weaker, and she doesn’t contest that women are physically weaker in terms of raw strength, but she said that in her experience of running these groups of like-minded women who want to go out and explore and be independent, sort of Lewis and Clark-like, get out there and do it on their own, and feel independent.
In her experience, and she’s pointed to a couple of studies that show that women are more likely to ask for help, less likely to seek trophies, per say, based on the measurements, but really wanting to get outside and provide for their family some sort of meat in the case of hunting, or fish in the case of fishing often.
And one of the things I took away from that conversation with Jackie is that when we delve into why she thinks that this growth has happened significantly in the last 6 or 7 years, she indicated to me that she felt one of the biggest reasons why women are coming into hunting is that they have a sense of community on social media. So, we hear a lot about the negatives of social media, but here’s an example, I would argue based on my conversation with her and some other folks, where women who felt like they were a tomboy growing up, or maybe ostracized from the hunting camps because they were a woman, or looked down upon by other women, or fishing too for that matter, have found a sense of community online and through different groups, hunting organizations and fishing organizations, where they can come together and go explore outdoors and be totally independent.
So, for them it’s actually been empowering and quite frankly, it’s breaking down these stereotypes that have been long held.
I think that when people close their eyes and picture a hunter, at least this has been the case for most of the hunters I know, they tend to picture the traditional quote, unquote “hunter.” This burly man with a beard, maybe, or whatever it is you picture in your mind, but I would encourage everyone to do that exercise and when you open your eyes, realize that the hunter is changing rather quickly. It’s women and children and people of all different backgrounds are coming into this sport and I think it’s changing, and I think it’s for the better.
Jennifer: So, one other point is that this is not from a purely, the desire to get more women out and hunting is not purely to rectify this gender imbalance. It’s also a market segment that these outdoor companies are very aware of and aware that it’s not being capitalized on.
Again, if they’re 20 percent of the hunters but 50 percent of the population, those are folks that can buy a lot of stuff. And I think that one of the things that we have seen with the growth of women hunters is a lot more gear tailored specifically to women.
I come to this as a geographer and having done some research in the field of economic geography. So, I think about labor and recreation and things like paid and unpaid labor. And one of the things that struck me-I was listening to Steve Rinella’s Meat Eater Podcast, which is a great podcast, and he’s doing a lot to broaden the appeal of hunting from being so stigmatized and polarized into something that is accessible from a conservation as well as a recreational point of view. But I was listening to one of his guests talk about going to a nearby state and spending an entire day knocking on doors and to try to see if he could get access to hunt on these people’s land. And as an avid outdoors person but also as a working mom, I couldn’t even imagine being able to spend an entire day taking a trip, not even to do the activity that I wanted to do, but to actually go and just try to get access to the activity I wanted to do. It just seemed so ludicrous because I’m listening to this podcast while picking up one kid and taking someone else to swimming. Unpaid labor in every country around the world is disproportionately performed by women. This is not saying that men aren’t pitching in more to do unpaid labor, they certainly are, but in no country around the world is it anywhere remotely equal. And the thing about unpaid labor is that it often happens around the home. And this has implications for women’s both professional life, as well as their recreational life. So, for instance, activities, things like schools and doctors appointments, those tend to be within a shorter geographic range of the home, and time is sort of chunked up into smaller chunks. Preschools run 2 to 3 hours, doctor’s appointments are an hour and require 10 to 15 minutes of driving, so basically, the temporal and spatial dynamics of whoever is performing the bulk of that unpaid labor, are just going to be more constrained.
And so, thinking about this issue of women hunting as a geographer, I’m saying, and this is just my suspicion, but I wonder if it has less to do with finding a shirt that fits right, and more to do with being disproportionately responsible for the unpaid labor to make a household run.
And, what that means, somewhat ironically, is that if men or marketers want women to be more involved in the outdoors to make up for this declining segment of the hunting population, they’re going to need to take on more of the unpaid tasks of the household. So, my guess is that if and as society becomes more egalitarian, women will be able to free up that entire day and be able to go and ask for permissions door to door because they know that the household is running just fine without them. I do think that’s the trend, but I wonder if some marketers are missing the mark in terms of what’s really needed to spend time both in the outdoors and other recreational activities.
Alexander: I think it’s got much more profound implications, though, than just getting more females out hunting. I think what it also means is, if we look at, for example, how all of our state and national parks are funded and a large chunk of these conservation programs are managed, and this includes native species, this includes wildlife, and all kinds of stuff, 60 percent of that is funded from excise taxes on ammunition and guns.
So, the implications of not keeping hunters at least at the level they are now, or getting the other half of the population, women, involved are quite severe. And really, what this means is if we don’t accomplish this, if we don’t keep hunters spending money to buy the ammunition to pay for the guide, to pay for the license, and it’s both men and women, we’re going to lose a significant amount of funding to keep our environment in the manner that we are accustomed to.
And the question then becomes, how do we fund these parks? Can we rely on birders and hikers and mountain bikers to spend on average what a hunter spends per year, which is $2,400? I think that those implications could be severe for society if we don’t figure it out or start to ponder it. So I think, Jen, to your point, the theory is very interesting. It makes a lot of sense to me as a man just listening to it, but I think that the implications are much bigger than just new markets for hunting. I think it has to do with our very core of what many of us like to do in the outdoors and that’s to have an area we can go and access publicly, safely, and have wildlife to view and see.
Jennifer: I think you’re absolutely right Alex, and I think that’s a big deal.
Because it’s true that a lot of this conservation money comes from hunting and it’s a lot harder to monetize these other recreational activities.
That said, we were talking about conservationism earlier, and we can’t ignore the fact that this model we’ve established for state-level wildlife and ecosystem management is really based on this idea of maintaining these ecosystems for hunting and extracting activities. So, I guess I would argue I think it’s important, but that way of paying for conservation is also a historical artifact. It varies from place to place, but I wonder if we could open this question up a little bigger, rather than assume we’re inherently locked into this model of hunting being the only way we could achieve conservation goals.
Alexander: Yeah, and I think that that could be argued as a false dichotomy. I think that we’ve got enough space in the U.S. and enough people interested in just getting outdoors that what I foresee happening is everyone participating and everyone paying. Not just the hunters paying the bulk of everything, but also charging people who want to mountain bike or hike or camp higher fees. And I suspect that everyone will come up with a compromise, but I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to fund all of this without having hunters as part of the equation, and certainly without having half of our population participating or being willing to get out and have an experience outdoors where they actually may catch a fish and eat it, or harvest an animal and eat this wonderful, organic meat.
(Edited for brevity and readability)
Midterm votes are still being tallied, and women are predicted to increase their overall share of state legislature seats from 25.4% to as much as 38% across the country. Next year, at least 2,019 women will serve in state legislative offices exceeding the previous record of 1,879 women serving simultaneously set in 2018. This incorporation is vital for the important policies being debated and adopted in these legislatures, and for changing the workplace culture of legislatures. Women’s caucuses at the state level are one effective vehicle for ensuring that gender equity issues are included in state political agendas and that institutional norms expand to embrace women as equal partners in policymaking.
Caucuses provide a space for legislators to create policy priorities apart from those determined by committees and parties. The relationships and skills created by caucus participation assist members in pursuing public policies and equip them with political skills and capital that can be applied broadly. Caucuses also allow legislators to express certain identities, signifying themselves as experts in certain legislative areas and advocates for certain constituencies. They provide opportunities for leadership. And, as state legislatures mirror the national trend of heightened polarization, caucuses play a key role in creating cross-party collaboration.
Women’s caucuses play a particularly key role in legislative life. Depending on the proportion of women in the majority party, the presence of a women’s caucus may be correlated with higher proportions of women in leadership positions, thereby raising women’s status within the institution. Identity caucuses have a specific symbolic power, as well, in that they signal governmental legitimacy to their constituents and help amplify marginalized voices.
Broadly, women’s caucuses perform three important functions.
First, as organizations that signify gender as politically salient, women legislators’ caucuses reveal the false gender neutrality of politics and make male dominance within political institutions visible.
Scholars note the formal mechanisms by which such dominance manifests, such as party leaders’ choices to concentrate women legislators in less powerful committee appointments and exclude women from leadership positions. My book also documents the informal ways that male advantage is accrued through legislatures’ social norms, such as men calling out women for speaking in groups larger than pairs or excluding women from social gatherings in which political deals are made.
Second, women’s caucuses can provide a safe space in which marginalized legislators are able to support each other as they help develop and refine legislative initiatives.
Women’s caucuses have brought enormous intellectual acumen to bear on women’s health initiatives like funding for breast and cervical cancer screening, domestic violence, and reproductive rights, as well as services for military families and women in prison—these issues might be overlooked or underexplored outside women-led spaces.
Finally, as conduits for advocacy organizations into the legislature, women’s caucuses may contribute to better representation for many different constituencies.
That representation can include the development of policy agendas, but also a range of efforts like the distribution of scholarships, hosting campaign trainings, and organizing headline events to commemorate women’s contributions to their states’ political histories. By tailoring their organizations within legislative institutions, women help meet their state’s specific needs in dynamic conversation with the gender and partisan norms of their political environment.
As of 2016, there were 22 women’s caucuses, in every region of the U.S., in Republican and Democratically controlled legislatures, and in states with low, moderate, and high proportions of women legislators. Some are informal working groups, while others include by-laws, officers, and dues. Across the map, even in conservative Southern states, women’s caucuses are shaping policy agendas and legislative life.
The surge in women representatives elected in the midterms means it is possible that we will see the formation of many more women’s caucuses, as I found in my analysis of New Jersey, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Colorado between 2006-2010. Caucus entrepreneurs in Colorado and Pennsylvania were newly elected women dissatisfied with the state of affairs they found when they entered the state house, while New Jersey’s caucus was started by more senior women who recognized a political opportunity as women filled seats vacated by indicted incumbents.
Most women’s caucuses are launched under Democratic control; because Democrats have reclaimed some chambers, women legislators may seize upon the positive condition. My research with Christopher J. Clark demonstrates that when women’s numbers in Democratically-controlled legislatures increase, legislators are slightly more likely to form caucuses. One interesting case is Minnesota’s House, which flipped to the Democrats and will likely see a woman Speaker. Even before the election, Minnesota’s female DFL’ers were holding meetings, so while, counting both parties, women house members actually lost a seat, the potential for collective action is possible.
Even without a surge in women or Democratic control, savvy entrepreneurs may still read on-the-ground political conditions as favorable for caucus formation.
Women’s caucuses are found even in unlikely places with high party polarization (Colorado), low numbers of women in office (Wyoming), and strongly Republican states (Georgia). Some environments may be more favorable than others, but evidence suggests that when strategic women legislators utilize the right frames and marshal the right resources, they can unite women across party lines. To encourage women of all parties to join, caucus entrepreneurs need to frame the proposed group as a solution to shared problems, whether a sense of isolation from leadership, work-life challenges, or the need to build a collective voice on specific policy issues. Caucus founders are more likely to be successful when they read the political context and establish responsive caucus cultures.
From mobilizing within a larger session agenda to prioritizing bipartisan relationship-building, caucus activities are most effective when they engage all members and staffers, organizing to keep initiatives on track across sessions.
To be sure, women whose state legislatures have no gender-based caucuses are not without powerful organizing ties and tools. In many states, women legislators have established strong social networks that help them work together. Caucuses, however, provide recognizable structure and purpose in powerful ways. Tactically minded women legislators will approach the next session in ways that teach us about strategy, about women in positions of power, and about how state legislatures, as institutions, respond to an influx of new, diverse political actors. Keen observers must be forgiven our excitement: we’re watching to see how our women representatives organize together to accomplish policy and combat gridlock.
If you’ve been monitoring elections returns with an eye to gender and intersectionality, you know that the record number of women candidates for national office translated to an important increase of women in the US house, a slight decrease in the Senate, and a return to the record of nine women governors across the country. You also know that the exciting story nationally has been the many historic “firsts” for people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and others gaining federal office for the first time – what Van Jones and others call the “rainbow wave.”
But what do these patterns look like at the state level?
We dug into the data of one midwestern state, Minnesota, and see some similar increases of women (and men) of color gaining statewide or federal elected offices, but the numbers of women and LGBTQ people in the state legislature have declined slightly.
In federal and statewide elections, Minnesota closely hewed to the national trends. After all votes were counted, Minnesotans elected a parity federal delegation (50% women) with women picking up two congressional seats previously held by men and becoming the fourth state to have two women senators. One of the two congressional seat pickups for women went to the first Somali-American woman to serve in Congress, Ilhan Omar. Omar joined Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib to become the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress. At the statewide level, Minnesotans elected the first Native American woman, Peggy Flanagan, to a statewide executive office as Lieutenant Governor, and the first African American Muslim man, Keith Ellison, for Attorney General. In doing so, Minnesota voters made Ellison one of the highest-ranking Muslim elected officials in the country.
Omar and Ellison’s victories are especially notable in the midst of an election filled with heated national rhetoric on immigration and religion.
When we move to the Minnesota state legislature however, women lost ground, losing a net two seats. Republican women led the losses – Democratic women picked up 7 seats, but Republican women lost nine amidst a Democratic takeover of the Minnesota House. The Republican Caucus in the 2018 Minnesota House will be 80% white men (up from 72.7%), compared to a Democratic Caucus that remains around 47% white male (up slightly from 2017’s 45.6%).
Minnesota’s Republican women came out of the election with significantly fewer people like them at the decision-making table. But the racial diversity of the Minnesota’s state legislature will increase in some important ways.
While much of the immigration debate nationally has centered on Latinx and Muslim communities, Minnesota is home to the largest Hmong refugee population in the country. That community saw impressive gains in representation at the state capitol. Five of six Hmong candidates won their races, two women and three men. They join one Hmong man currently serving in the Minnesota Senate. Organizing efforts by several organizations, including a new PAC, MAIV-PAC, focused on Hmong women, contributing to the wins. With a net gain of two people of color, the 2018 Minnesota House is the most diverse ever. Seven women of color (the same number as 2017) and five men (a gain of two) will be seated in January, representing almost 10% of the body. One Somali woman (Hodan Hassan) and one Somali man (Mohamed Noor) are among them – with Somalis being another significant immigrant community in the state.
Minnesota LGBTQ communities lost representation in the state House, while gaining at the federal level.
Angie Craig beat Congressman Jason Lewis to become the first Lesbian to win a congressional seat in Minnesota and the first openly gay mother to serve in Congress. She joins at least eight other successful LGBTQ candidates that ran for congress in 2018. At the state legislative level, three LGBTQ women retired or left to pursue higher office in 2018, resulting in a loss of LGBTQ representation at the state Capitol.
While public and media focus tends to concentrate on the federal level, the power of state governments is often overlooked.
Governors elected this year will be in office when their states redistrict after the 2020 Census, for example. State legislatures and governors make critical decisions about issues important to voters, such as healthcare and education. Diverse identities and life experiences of state office holders bring new ideas and perspectives to the table, and hopefully better or more creative solutions. The Center for American Women in Politics found, for example, women on both sides of the aisle in the 114th Congress very much believe that their presence and their voices matter. Results from Minnesota suggest that a blue wave doesn’t necessarily translate into a uniformly representative rainbow wave at all levels of government. As results from other states come in, we will have a better picture of how state governments may change to better represent the diverse identities of their constituents.
Women are dramatically underrepresented at every level of office in the United States, and that won’t change after election night. Women comprise only 19 percent of the U.S. House; 23 percent of the U.S. Senate; 26 percent of all state legislators; and 12 percent of governors. However, a record-number of women are running for office in 2018, and it is all but certain that the number of women in elected office will increase. The question is: how much will the gender gap in representation narrow?
Women’s candidate emergence reached new levels in 2018.
A record 53 women filed to run in primaries for the U.S. Senate and 476 women filed to run in primaries for the U.S. House. This set a new record for women in both parties running for the U.S. Senate and a record for Democratic women running for the U.S. House. The partisan gap in women’s candidacies that emerged in the 1992 elections has widened; in 2018, thirty percent of Democrats’ federal candidates are women compared to only 13 percent of Republican’s federal candidates.
Scholarly research shows that when women run for office, women win at the same rate as men.
In 2018, Democratic women were more likely to win their primaries than Democratic men by a record-setting 19 points, while Republican women and men won at around the same rate.
Research shows that women typically do as well as or, in the case of Democratic women, slightly better than their male counterparts in primaries, but this gap was much larger in 2018 than in prior cycles.
The primary results mean that a record number of women are on the ballot. In the general election, twenty-nine percent of U.S. House candidates are women, 32 percent of general election Senate candidates are women, and 22 percent of gubernatorial candidates are women.
One of the reasons that women have typically won U.S. House races at the same rate as men is because women are typically better prepared to run and take more steps to be successful than men do.
Women are more likely to have already held a lower-level elected office; women raise more money than their male counterparts; and women run in districts that favor their party.
Women running in 2018 are breaking the mold, at least to some extent, and it is historic and inspiring in important ways. Many of the Democratic women running for the U.S. House in 2018 have been motivated to run by the desire to change politics, not because it is the next logical progression in a political career. This shift means that more women are running—especially Democrats—but it may mean that for the first time, women won’t win at the same rate as men. Women are having a harder time raising money than men in this cycle (though they are raising more money from women donors!). And, many more women are running in districts that will make it difficult for them to win, meaning that the increase in women serving in office will not be as dramatic as the increase in women candidates.
For many women candidates, the races are too close to call.
Women’s representation in the 116th Congress depends, in part, on the outcomes in twenty “toss up” races. In these races, ten Democratic women are running as challengers or in open seats, while two Republican women incumbents are defending their seats and one Republican women is running in an open seat and one is running as a challenger.
Of the ten most vulnerable U.S. Senators, three are Democratic women (although Minnesota’s Tina Smith faces a Republican woman challenger, so a woman will serve either way), and one Democratic challenger is a woman.
There is no question that women’s underrepresentation will continue past election day, but with women competing in many competitive races, the question is how much will women close the gap, and what will it mean for majority party control in each chamber?
World leaders have set a goal of gender equality by 2030, yet experts caution that it can’t happen if data gaps are not solved. One noted, “Data saves lives. It captures the attention of policy makers and focuses their efforts on the right issues.” That is, as advocates put it, we must “count women” if we are to garner large-scale support and resources for women and girls. To learn what this emphasis looks like in implementation, I asked international development practitioners how gender-related measurement is carried out at their project sites—and with what effects? What I heard resonates with the words of former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios: focusing on measurement is important, yet it also “ignores a central principle of development theory… programs that are [the] most transformational are the least measurable.”
My findings, based on interviews with sixty development professionals, suggest that when it comes to programming meant to engage and benefit women and men equally, the current policies and practices of measurement unfold in unexpected ways.
Although sex-disaggregated data is meaningful for funders, reporting practices take project-level attention away from understanding women within the intersecting structural inequalities of their everyday lives. In this formulation, measurement practices enhance upward accountability to donors, while reducing downward accountability to the women the programs are meant to benefit.
Among the international indices developed to measure women’s empowerment, we find the UNDP Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGI). In 2016, the top three bilateral donors of Official Development Assistance were the United States – USAID ($33.6b), Germany – BMZ ($24.7b), and the United Kingdom – DFID ($18.0b). USAID, BMZ, and DFID each have gender policies with attention to sex-disaggregated data and finding “what works for women and girls.” Data2x, a technical and advocacy platform, was expressly formed to ensure the collection of sex-disaggregated data. Yet, while these projects may succeed in making women and girls “visible” through data, how do these measurement practices translate into development programming for those women and girls we can now “see”?
To understand the impacts of measurement practices, it is important to analytically separate two interpretations of the word “development.”
Commonly, development is understood as an ideal, an intention, a moral good—the “better world” on the horizon. Yet development is also a multibillion-dollar industry employing thousands. It is a sector of jobs, contracts, and organizations in which professionals and organizations build their reputations on their “impact” on improving livelihoods in developing countries. Conceptualizing development as two-sided in this way maintains excitement for the ideal of development, while also allowing exploration of what the industry does to the people, places, and communities where development projects operate.
Again, development as an ideal posits downward accountability to the world’s poor through efficacious development, whereas development as an industry tends toward upward accountability to donors (and, by extension, taxpayers) through demonstrated results. The latter dominates accountability discussions in development circles. In 2005, for instance, the Paris Declaration for Aid Effectiveness articulated an international standard for finding what does and does not work for aid through five pillars, including a commitment to measuring and achieving results and establishing mutual accountability. But how are results defined? And accountability to whom? Results typically sit at the project level and include baseline data, progress reports, and performance plans alongside cost-benefit analyses, business cases, impact assessments, and randomized control trials. Evidence that demonstrates a return on investment is considered key in demonstrating accountability and transparency for taxpayer expenditures. In this context, measurement is key in determining organizations’ labor and budget decisions.
Time and again, we hear: “What gets counted, gets done.” However, the focus on measuring development ignores the very messy world of international development.
My findings from researching the evaluation system of a bilateral agricultural initiative suggest that when donors mandate the “counting” of women, the pressure to deliver results undermines reaching women in meaningful and sustainable ways – the “ideal” side of development.
During my research, multiple Gender Advisers told me that gender-related work items are deprioritized because other input-based initiatives, such as latrine building or immunizations, are easier to measure. When faced with an impending quarterly or annual report to the donor, quantifiable measurements become highly valued despite the difficulty of clearly capturing gender dynamics. Gender Advisers also noted that projects are not often designed with reaching women in mind. For example, women may need trainings delivered closer to their homes and with childcare provided to decrease their opportunity cost. Further, Chiefs of Party (project directors) cite the “pre-investment” of working with marginalized populations. Women and girls disproportionately fail to qualify to participate in projects requiring a high school education or fairly sophisticated levels of literacy, numeracy, and strategic thinking to write business plans. As they face the pressure of delivering results to donor, Chiefs of Party reported needing more time to slow down and build the capacity of women and girls—often structurally marginalized through social, cultural, economic, and/or political factors in their own communities—to benefit from the programs.
When development ideals are refracted through the politics of evidence, it creates a high stakes context in which organizations must prove their impact. Transformational goals such as women’s empowerment are, then, likely to be deprioritized in the face of easier-to-measure goals and objectives.
The next time the development sector asks for more data and measurement to help achieve gender equality or women’s empowerment as an ideal, practitioners and researchers should pause. Development as an industry, driven by measurement practices, may negatively impact how women are included in projects. Of course garnering political support and resources at a policy level is needed, and making women visible is a worthy venture—there are data gaps. But garnering meaningful engagement of women during implementation is equally important. This research suggests we should count women and, rather than count women period. This means developing alternative accountability structures, in which metrics are only one part. Reinvigorating and reimagining the project cycle to make space for the structural and normative realities that make up women’s everyday lives would assist in meaningful project delivery and results reporting. Longer term horizons to allow time for gender social norm transformation, integrated projects that help women gain foundational skills, and the adoption of change theories that directly address differential programming for women (including an understanding of the diversities within and between, for instance, married women and women-headed households) are all potentially fruitful adaptations. This research challenges us to think creatively about how to ensure that results-based development works for women and girls.