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Objectives. A disciplinary division of labor has discouraged research into the intersections between social movements and electoral participation. To address this gap, this study investigates the efforts of local women activists who organize around electing feminists to public office. Methods. Data was collected through participant observation and in-depth, unstructured interviews with 22 women active with a local chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). Results. The study found that local Caucus women (1) experience everyday life politics in connection with electoral activity, (2) organize through both their own formal structure and a vast informal community-based organizational network, and (3) influence electoral activity in a seemingly candidate-centered environment. Conclusions. Local Caucus activists play a critical albeit less visible role in organizing feminist electoral influence. These findings suggest the importance of research that transcends disciplinary boundaries to investigate the interactions between nonparty grassroots activism and electoral activity.
Scholars in the fields of both sociology and political science have neglected the political importance of local feminist activists who organize in pursuit of electing women to public office. Such activists have remained mostly invisible to scholars due in large part to a disciplinary division of labor that treats social movement activity and electoral politics as two separate fields (Costain and McFarland, 1998). I argue that the confines of these disciplinary traditions have also affected feminist research on women and politics, resulting in little if any research on community organizing as related to women's bids for elective office.
To address this gap in the literature, I begin by reviewing the work of prominent researchers in the fields of electoral participation, community activism, and feminist work on women in politics. I then investigate the work and lives of members of a local chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), suggesting how the efforts of local feminist activists might add to our understanding of political and social change. In particular, a focus on local NWPC activists (1) refines our understanding of "being political," (2) suggests the importance of a local activist infrastructure for electoral change, and (3) makes visible the significance of local activism within a candidate-centered context.
Gaps in the Literature
Separate Traditions: Political Pa Participation and Activist Organizing
Each field of study, political participation and activist organizing, respectively, builds on a distinctive definition of politics, methodology and core questions guiding the research. As observed by Leighley (1995) in her field essay on political participation, political behavior research has focused most closely on expanding and refining the standard socioeconomic status (SES) model, an approach first fully articulated by Verba and Nie (1972). The central finding of this research, which has strong empirical support, is that high-income, well-educated individuals are much more likely to participate in electoral tasks than those with fewer resources. Since Verba and Nie's 1972 study, this model has been developed in some detail with researchers considering the role of participation type (voting vs. campaigning), the range of incentives for involvement (material vs. civic, etc.), and the role of resources (money, time, and civic skills) (Brady, Verba, and Schlozman, 1995; Schlozman, Verba, and Brady, 1995; Ver ba, Schlozman, and Brady, 1995).
This research, which tends to rely on survey data, theorizes about participation using a fairly narrow definition of political activity. For instance, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady define political participation as "activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action" either directly through the creation of public policy or indirectly through the selection of political decisionmakers (1995:38). These authors do include a question about the respondent's involvement in both protest activity and informal community involvement. These questions, however, instruct the respondent to limit their answer to activity within the last two years and to exclude all workplace activism. Given these parameters, this research captures only the most recent political behavior in a respondent's life and typically emphasizes electoral activity such as voting, campaign work, making campaign contributions, and contacting government officials.
In addition, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady's (1995) model most often conceptualizes political activity as an attribute of the individual. In other words, such studies examine individual characteristics such as income, whether the respondent voted, and/or his or her reported level of interest in politics. Given this approach, organizational activity, which is often designated as nonpolitical, is counted as whether or not a particular individual reported membership with a variety of types of organizations, such as religious, educational, or leisure groups. Such measures do provide important findings, such as Verba, Schlozman, and Brad/s (1995) civic volunrarism model, which indicates that individuals who affiliate with "nonpolitical" voluntary organizations are more likely to be electorally active. Nevertheless, this model still tends to conceptualize organizational involvement in individualistic terms. For example, the model relies on the reported number of civic skills practiced by an individual within an organ ization, such as writing a letter, making a speech, or attending a meeting. In this way, the focus is on the individual (number of skills practiced) and not on activity belonging to the whole group in terms of becoming organized or organizing others.
A mostly separate scholarly tradition has empirically investigated and theorized about social movement activity. This tradition includes a variety of complementary and sometimes competing theoretical approaches such as resource mobilization models, political process theory, and frame alignment (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1988). My interest here is in more recent developments in the literature, in particular a field of study often referred to as new social movement theory. This approach, which is often discussed in relation to the women's, environmental, and peace movements of the last 30 years, emphasizes issues such as collective identity, culture, a "micromobilization context," and theories of social construction (Mueller, 1992; Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield, 1994; Johnston and Klandermans, 1995). In addition, I focus most closely on studies that investigate the feminist movement and/or women's community organizing.
This body of research, especially studies on women's grassroots organizing, draws on different assumptions about the nature of politics and what counts as a political task. For instance, Bookman and Morgen (1988:4) discuss political empowerment as the "spectrum of political activity ranging from acts of individual resistance to mass political mobilizations that challenge the basic power relations in our society." Given such a definition, the studies in their volume include acts of resistance by domestic workers, a campaign to keep open a health clinic servicing low-income women and their families, and the efforts of data terminal operators to unionize within a major hospital. Other volumes that operationalize politics in a similar manner make visible the efforts of women who organize around basic human needs, such as welfare rights, safety from toxic-waste disposal, access to education, and quality and low-cost housing (Naples, 1998; West and Blumberg, 1990). Similarly, authors in Ferree and Martin's (1995) v olume investigate organizing in relation to feminist issues such as the battered women's movement, Ms Magazine, and a feminist bank.
In addition to invoking a broader definition of politics, these studies focus more directly on the project of organizing. Attention is placed not on individual attributes, but on how individuals' connections with others relate to social change efforts. In Mueller's (1992:7) words, "the actor is socially located or 'embedded' in terms of group identities and is rooted in social networks... [such that] social locations intersect and overlap in providing cultural materials that are drawn upon by a meaning-constructing actor who participates with others in interpreting a sense of grievances, resources, and opportunities." In other words, those who study women's grassroots organizing often focus on how …