Women in Politics with Leandra Zarnow


August 22, 2019

113th_congress_usa_women_version_altered_by_office_of_House_Minority_LeaderWIH is proud to welcome Leandra Zarnow, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in History at UH, to our faculty this fall. Dr. Zarnow specializes in U.S. women’s history, political history, and legal history. Her first book Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug will be published by Harvard University Press in November 2019. We asked Dr. Zarnow to talk about her upcoming class Women in Politics: An Uneven Road Since Suffrage.

WIH Reporter:  Welcome to WIH Dr. Zarnow! We are really looking forward to your class. As we get closer to the 100th year since woman suffrage – what do you consider the greatest achievement in women’s politics since?

Zarnow:  I think the groundswell of women who ran for office in 2018 coming on the heels of the Women’s March of 2017 was a historic milestone and proved that women are increasingly willing to put themselves out there as candidates. So much attention has been placed on how few women are in Congress—and it is a pretty dismal 23.7%—but we might also look at how many women want to be there but have not yet made it. 528 women ran for Congress and nearly half made it past the primaries in 2018. This is huge, but the question is, why has it taken so long to reach a critical mass in this national power center? And as a historian, I want to also know about the hundreds of women who tried before 2018 and have not been considered as historically important because they lost.

WIH Reporter:  What are you most excited to share with your students?

Zarnow:  I am eager to explore with my students how much women have seized the opportunity to be involved in politics at every level since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, as well as why women continue to face impediments to voting rights and gaining public office.

WIH Reporter:  What do you see as the most critical impediment to the slow advancement of women in politics? Is it merely a reflection of society in general or is there something deeper?

Zarnow:  I think it is important to acknowledge that the founding framework of our legal and political system was one of patriarchy.  We have come a long way from the days in which it was assumed women did not need the vote because their husbands and sons would vote for them and vote the same way. But it was not until 2011 that women in the House of Representatives finally got a women’s restroom near the Speaker’s lobby; a parallel renovation was made in the Senate in 1993. This was something women in Congress had complained about since at least the 1970s, and it reminds that our nation’s seats of government are patriarchal by design. It will take more years ahead to fully eradicate the law and culture that goes along with this architecture.

WIH Reporter:  What do you think the first female presidency will look like?

Zarnow:  I think the first female presidency will be most impactful in settling the longstanding misperception that women are not as tough on issues of national security, and likewise help destabilize our gendered conception of the commander-in-chief.  It has been difficult for women politicians to overcome an enduring masculine political ideal.  We see this in the Democratic Party presidential primary, where six women are running and two—Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris—are leading contenders.  And yet, political commentators keep asking, “Are they viable?” and related to this question is talk of which woman would make a better vice-president.  This preoccupation suggests to me that this masculine political ideal is still a quite dominant and powerful cultural preference.

WIH Reporter:  In today’s world of women finding their voices and standing up to misogyny, what would surprise us to know about the women you will be discussing?

Zarnow:  My idea for this class really came from a collection I am co-editing with historian Stacie Taranto, Suffrage at 100: Women’s Uneven Road in American Politics Since 1920, which John Hopkins Press will be publishing in summer 2020 timed with the centennial.  We and twenty others are writing about women who have been persistent in using their political voices over the past one-hundred years to show that they are not merely finding them today, but rather there is a longstanding tradition of women’s political speech and political acts.

WIH Reporter:  Tell us a little about your book Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug. What made you choose her as an important historical figure?

Zarnow:  New York Representative Bella Abzug served in Congress between 1971-1976, and in her time, was seen as the embodiment of women in politics so much so that Life magazine put her on the cover in 1972 of an issue that explored that year as a “Year of the Woman.” When I began this project in the early 2000s, I was surprised to find that even though Abzug was a major figure in the feminist and anti-war movements, no major work had been done on her. I believe this was largely because she lost her bid for Senate in 1976 and did not return to public office thereafter.  In my book, I explore how Bella Abzug was a key figure of a Democratic New Politics faction that pushed the party leftward in the late 1960s and early 1970s not unlike the progressive challenge that is happening today.

Women In Politics: An Uneven Road Since Suffrage meets for 3 weeks beginning Tuesday, September 24 at 10:00.