For Democrats, the Future Is Female

Spread the love

Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox.

Last week, my colleague Elizabeth Dias was trawling through the New York Times archives for a story we’re working on and came up with a gem of a report about the Republican sweep of 1980.

One quote, in particular, jumped off the page. It was from Senator George McGovern, describing how Democrats, including him, were routed that year:

“People were reluctant to come right out and admit they wanted to put women in their place, but there was a strong current of that running through much of what happened,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear of changing sex roles, of new pressures on the family, and men and women alike were threatened by it.”

Anyone hearing an echo here?

Gender isn’t a subtext in this election: It’s woven into the fabric of this race. The gender gap between the parties in Congress is one of the biggest on record, as Republicans try to boost the number of women in their ranks. A historic number of Democratic women are running for president. And any Democrat — man or woman — who wins the party’s nomination will be forced to grapple with President Trump’s denigration of women.

Nearly weekly, some controversy about sexual assault, pay equity or abortion riles up both sides of the political spectrum.

On Sunday, new reporting that corroborated an allegation of sexual assault against Justice Brett Kavanaugh prompted several of the Democratic presidential candidates to call for his impeachment. Republicans said the reporting, which appeared in The Times, was a smear.

Those Democratic candidates are well aware that women propelled the party to midterm victories as candidates, volunteers and voters.

I spent the past two days following a new organization, Supermajority, that hopes to channel that wave of energy into a kind of new women’s movement that touches on every aspect of women’s lives, from economics to race to health care.

The group, founded by a trifecta of high-profile progressive leaders, is on a cross-county bus tour to spread its message, with the hope of eventually training and mobilizing two million women.

Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and a founder of Supermajority, said the political energy inspired by movements like the 2017 Women’s March on Washington had to be sustained.

“My nightmare would be waking up 10 years from now and going, ‘That march, that was so great, but you know, like, what happened?’” she said. “This is a time where we have to be, I think, more aspirational than simply resisting.”

But the Supermajority founders have also made it clear: This isn’t about converting the white women who voted for Mr. Trump. It’s about motivating more women to enter the arena.

At their kickoff event in Atlanta on Sunday, they hosted Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician who won a national following during her unsuccessful run for governor in 2018. The next morning in Birmingham, Ala., vows to fight a new law outlawing almost all abortions in the state brought the crowd to their feet.

“Everyone talks about the fact that this last election was decided by 77,000 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania,” said Ms. Richards. “Well, there’s a million unregistered women in Michigan alone.”

Ms. Richards and her team believe the Democratic primary candidates could do a far better job speaking to these concerns, pointing out that the last debate did not include questions about pay equity, abortion or sex discrimination.

But it’s unclear whom, exactly, this new moment of gender awareness will energize the most. Yes, Democrats won control of the House last year on the backs of their super-engaged female supporters. But the Kavanaugh fight animated Republicans who say a liberal mob is trying to ruin everything from plastic straws to burgers. That helped Republicans capture key Senate seats in red states like Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, expanding their majority.

“What it did for those of us who were running, it crystallized how bad Washington is,” former Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “If you were of Washington at that moment, frankly, the party didn’t matter as much as the fact that you were part of that mess.”

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at

My colleague Campbell Robertson had a fascinating look over the weekend at the changing economics and gender roles in coal country. I wanted to know a bit more. Campbell was kind enough to answer all my questions.

Here’s what he had to say about the economy, coal mining and, of course, politics.

What did you learn about how gender dynamics are changing in coal country?

For generations, the typical household in the coal fields was organized around the mining life. Coal mining, an overwhelmingly male-dominated line of work, is a dangerous and even deadly business, but with all the overtime, it pays pretty nicely; miners can draw incomes in the high five figures. They tend to work long days and weeks, so their wives traditionally held down things at home, especially when there were young kids (professional child care is in short supply in eastern Kentucky). But thousands of mining jobs have been lost over the last decade, leaving that arrangement unsustainable. Many men have moved to lower-paying work and many have just dropped out of the labor force. Women, meanwhile, have gone back to school to find jobs, often in the medical field, that could make up for some of that lost family income. It’s really health care country now.

What surprised you the most about this shift?

A number of women I spoke with initially didn’t want to go to work; they liked the old arrangement. But having gotten good jobs out of necessity, they soon discovered how rewarding it is to have a measure of self-reliance. It’s been eye-opening. Some of the men I talked with felt as if they had let their wives down in not having well-paying jobs that allowed their wives to stay home. They’re apologetic about it. There’s a real disconnect here and it runs deep.

Is this unique from what’s happening across the country?

The female share of the work force grew after 2010 in about half of the counties in the United States, and in many, a majority of workers are women now. But just as the cowboy is still revered in the Dallas office parks, the coal miner is still the symbol of pride in central Appalachia. So the adjustment is more of a culture shock than it might be elsewhere.

I was really struck by how the economics of coal country are changing family dynamics. Do you think it’s changing politics, too?

On a federal level, I doubt it changes much. Though coal is not quite “back” the way Mr. Trump has pledged, his paeans to coal miners still resonate in a place that often feels overlooked. It gets interesting below that level. Teacher salaries and Medicaid expansion are at the center of the Kentucky governor’s race this year. Both are critical to the options in coal country, where schools and hospitals are now some of the biggest employers. I’m curious to see how the vote goes.

Were you forwarded this newsletter? Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.

Thanks for reading. Politics is more than what goes on inside the White House. On Politics brings you the people, issues and ideas reshaping our world.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at