‘Politics is a Space for You’

Rutgers–Camden faculty and students are at the forefront of a watershed moment in which record numbers of women are running for political office

Tooba Hussain, Ashly Estevez Perez, Miranda Stafford, Assistant Professor Shauna Shames, Assistant Professor Kelly Dittmar.

From left: Tooba Hussain,  Miranda Stafford, Assistant Professor Shauna Shames, Ashly Estevez Perez, and Assistant Professor Kelly Dittmar.

By Shelby Vittek GSC’16

In her hometown of Waterford Township—located in the rural stretch between Camden and Atlantic City—Miranda Stafford watched as many of her working-class neighbors faced the burdens of economic hardship. She wanted to take action, to do something that would help uplift her community. So last year—at the age of 19—Stafford ran for town committee. “It was such a jump into the deep end,” said Stafford, a Rutgers University–Camden rising senior majoring in political science, “but I was definitely able to navigate it.”

She didn’t make it beyond the primary election, but Stafford said the experience didn’t deter her from a future career in politics. In fact, it made her want to pursue one even more. “It was so informative to my understanding of what your responsibilities are in public office,” she said. “I saw what you can do and bring to the table while also understanding the people you’re representing.”

Women across America are feeling a similar sense of urgency to run for office. Since the 2016 presidential election, there has been a rise in the number of female candidates running at the local, state, and federal levels. According to current predictions, the number of female candidates for Congress in 2018 will be nearly double the amount who ran in 2016.

At Rutgers–Camden, two political science professors are studying this phenomenon, conducting research about women’s political underrepresentation and the role of gender in political campaigning, while encouraging female political science students who are looking toward futures in politics.

Kelly Dittmar authored the 2015 book Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, as well as multiple book chapters on gender and American politics

Kelly Dittmar authored the 2015 book Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, as well as multiple book chapters on gender and American politics

An Unprecedented Increase

Kelly Dittmar, who researches gender and American political institutions with a particular interest in how gender informs campaigns, is watching this year’s elections very closely. “It’s pretty unprecedented in terms of the degree of increase in women’s candidacies,” said Dittmar, a Rutgers–Camden assistant professor of political science and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Dittmar authored the book, Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Statewide Races, in which she looked at strategic decisions, messaging, and tactics used during political races, as well as how men and women negotiate gender and gender stereotypes while campaigning.

Her next book will be based on the report, “Representation Matters: Women in the U.S. Congress,” of which she was the lead writer. With fellow CAWP scholars, she interviewed 83 of the 108 women in the 114th Congress between 2015 through 2017. The report detailed the significance of women serving in Congress, examined diverse perspectives in the policymaking process, and explored the achievements women made despite gender-based challenges. “Women were excluded from formal politics when this country began and since have been marginalized by parties and political power brokers,” Dittmar said. “Historically, they have had to prove they’re man enough for the job, but not go so far as to violate expectations or norms of their gender.”

From April 2015 to December 2016, Dittmar led a project called Presidential Gender Watch, which tracked and analyzed gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential election. With the 2018 elections on the horizon, Dittmar’s attention is again focused on female candidates and their campaigns. In March, Dittmar launched Gender Watch 2018, a nonpartisan project that will study races across the country to glean ways in which gender shapes political campaigns and campaigning. She also will monitor the elections in real time with students at Rutgers–Camden in a special honors seminar about campaign elections she will teach this fall. “What I value most is the ability to bring empirical research to the public dialogue of gender in this election,” said Dittmar. “When we rely simply on anecdotes and feelings about what is happening nationally, sometimes we get the story wrong, or we miss key parts of the story.”

Dittmar pointed out that though we’ve seen an increase in women running for office, men also have increased in their number of candidacies. “Women are still highly underrepresented in the candidate pool,” she said. At the start of this year, women were just 23 percent of all the likely congressional candidates, far from equal representation. At the same point in 2016, about 19 percent of likely congressional candidates were women.

While there’s certainly been a rise in women gearing up to run for office, the push for women’s political power is a long game, Dittmar said. This is a point she raises while teaching her Women and Politics class, in which she encourages students to analyze politics and political institutions with a gender lens, as well as an intersectional lens.

While enrolled in the class last spring, a light bulb went off for urban studies major Ashly Estevez Perez, a rising junior at Rutgers–Camden. For her civic engagement project, she taught what she had learned in class about intersectionality in politics to students in an AP history class at Camden Academy Charter High School, her alma mater. “The class opened me up to things I didn’t yet know about politics in regards to race, economics, and class,” said Estevez Perez, a resident of Camden.

Shauna Shames co-edited The Right Women: Republican Party Activists, Candidates, and Legislators, published in January, and authored the 2017 book, Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Career and Why It Matters.

Shauna Shames co-edited The Right Women: Republican Party Activists, Candidates, and Legislators, published in January, and authored the 2017 book, Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Career and Why It Matters.

Politics as a Way to Solve Problems

Shauna Shames, an assistant professor in political science at Rutgers–Camden, is also deeply involved in her research about race and gender in American politics, and intensely dedicated to helping advance her students’ futures.

In her first book, Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why It Matters, Shames studied the reasons why people felt compelled to run for office, as well as the reasons they didn’t. She surveyed young people who were interested in politics yet wary of running for public office. One of the questions that helped determine their political ambitions was: Do you think politics can solve important problems? “Less than half of all men thought that was true,” Shames said. “But only a third of all women—and even less for women of color—thought that was true.”

Shames makes it a priority to convey to her students that getting involved in politics is a way to solve problems. “There are things that only government can do,” Shames said. “I love seeing students feel inspired to act rather than just feel angry.”

As the faculty adviser for the Political Science Society, a nonpartisan student-run club at Rutgers–Camden, Shames has helped recruit undergraduates, serving as a role model for students interested in political science, but especially to those who are women. “It’s helpful to female students if I’m the one saying, ‘It’s okay, politics is a space for you,’” Shames said. “You have to kind of give permission.”

Three out of five members of the student club’s executive board are women—president Tooba Hussain, vice president Miranda Stafford, and projects chair Markenzie Johnson—a shift from the mostly male board in the previous year.

Their mission is simple: to educate and involve people on campus in the political environment. The organization works to convey that politics is relevant and important in everyone’s lives, not just to those studying political science. The club has hosted events and panels related to issues such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Black History Month, mass incarceration, the American health-care system, gentrification, and more.

Markenzie Johnson: A 2018 graduate in political science and Africana studies, she was selected for the New Leadership National Network New Jersey program and won the Robert Packard Memorial Award in Political Science and the Chancellor’s Award for Civic Engagement.

Markenzie Johnson: A 2018 graduate in political science and Africana studies, she was selected for the New Leadership National Network New Jersey program and won the Robert Packard Memorial Award in Political Science and the Chancellor’s Award for Civic Engagement.

Markenzie Johnson came to Rutgers–Camden as a marketing major, but as a sophomore, felt pulled by another field. She’s now a recent political science/Africana studies graduate who believes in the merit of politics. “There is no change if there’s not a policy change,” said Johnson. “Professor Shames helped me realize that. She’s always stressed the importance of getting involved, however you can, in something that means something to you.”

Political Science Society President Tooba Hussain, a 2018 Rutgers–Camden political science/urban studies graduate, is grateful to have found a place where she felt she belonged on campus. “My experience in the PSS has allowed me to exist in so many different capacities,” she said. “I’m not just a Muslim. I’m not just a woman. I’m not just what I’m politically inclined to. I’m all of those.”

Shames is extremely encouraged by the students. “The fact that we have this crop of students who are so active and good at getting the campus mobilized to think about politics just makes me so proud,” Shames said.

Earlier this year, Shames edited the book, The Right Women: Republican Party Activists, Candidates, and Legislators, which examines the role of women in the Republican Party. Shames is editing another book, Good Reasons to Run: Women as Political Candidates, that is due out in 2019. In it, Shames and others explore candidate training programs for women, which existed long before the 2016 presidential election, but have since popped up all over the country. These include programs like Ready to Run at Rutgers–New Brunswick; EMILY’s List; Emerge; She Should Run; and IGNITE, all of which have “grown like gangbusters,” Shames said. “These programs were overwhelmed and inundated with calls and emails from women wanting to run. There has been a surge of women running for office—more than we have ever seen. It’s a kind of watershed moment.”

And the impact these two professors have had on their students is clear. This summer, Miranda Stafford is heading down to Washington, D.C., as one of seven recipients of the Rutgers-Eagleton Washington Internship Award Program. It is just the beginning for a young woman interested in politics. “I definitely want to run for public office again,” Stafford said. “Not only do I care about the people in my town, but they’ve worked hard for me. After getting my education here, it’s time for me to work hard for them.”

Shelby Vittek, associate editor at New Jersey Monthly magazine, holds an M.F.A. from Rutgers–Camden.

 

Posted in: 2018 Spring, Features

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