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Networked Women as a Rising Political Force, Online and Off

BY Tom Watson | Tuesday, November 13 2012

From Sandra Fluke to binders full of women, networked feminism changed the politics of 2012.

The phenomenon that I've taken to calling "networked feminism" didn't so much cause the wave that broke President Barack Obama's way a week ago as it did sail along with a rising demographic tide. To be sure, there was an easily discernible (and much ballyhooed) gender gap between Obama and Mitt Romney, according to exit polling, but it was actually a hair less than the distance between Obama and John McCain four years ago, when the GOP ran Sarah Palin for Vice-President.

And as both David C. Wilson in the Huffington Post and Dante Chinni at The Atlantic noted, the gender gap itself is short rations compared to the yawning chasms that center on ethnicity - massive gaps that actually power the distance between male and female voters for the President. Women voted 55-44 for Obama, but the incumbent lost among white women by 14 points. It was really his margins with women from other backgrounds that powered the gap based on sex: black women polled 96 percent for Obama, and Latino women backed the President 76-23 - in both cases, outpacing men from those backgrounds in supporting Obama. There's your gender gap.

"To be clear, the gender gap in America is not a myth—the numbers show it's real—but it's also very complicated," wrote Chinni, who is co-author of the book Our Patchwork Nation. "It can grow or shrink depending on a host of factors: race, age, marital status, even geography." Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, agreed: "One thing is for sure, those who put Obama over the threshold for his win were racial and ethnic minorities and not simply the broad segments like women, young voters, and other ignored groups being reported by many in the media this week."

The strongest flavor of networked activism is deeply feminist. There is a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy.

It's sociological suicide to lump half the population into a single interest group, anyway. Women don't vote en masse any more than men do. Yet I continue to believe, as I wrote earlier this year when Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” in response to her testimony before Congress on contraception costs, that the strongest flavor of networked activism is deeply feminist. There is a tenacious, super-wired coalition of active feminists prepared at a moment’s notice to blow the lid off sexist attacks or regressive health policy. You saw it racing to the digital barricades in the Limbaugh flap, the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood debacle, and even in support for jailed Russian activist rockers Pussy Riot.

And that muscle was clearly on display this cycle in several key Senate races, where the Republicans were caught with clueless, retrograde candidates spewing bizarre lines that wouldn't make a Will Ferrell flick.

Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were the most egregious examples, but I think that Scott Brown got caught on the wrong side of the feminist network with his dismissive (some would say arrogant) Massachusetts debate performances against Elizabeth Warren. The next Congress will feature 20 women Senators, an all-time high, including the entire New Hampshire delegation. Warren leads a freshman class that includes Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, and Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii.

Outside of Hillary Clinton's primary campaign for President - more on that in a moment - there has never been a greater moment for women in national politics. Yet there was no organized "women's campaign," no single national organization pushing women candidates, no definable feminist political social media network. If you looked at social media and my "networked feminism" ideal, what worked was organic moments of authentic and widespread anger.

Congressman Akin's "legitimate rape" comment was probably the defining moment - and it pushed Claire McCaskill to a once unlikely victory in Missouri. His remarks on a local television broadcast were clipped and YouTubed by American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive PAC. The story was quickly reported by Talking Points Memo, and within only a few minutes "Todd Akin" was trending on Twitter. I saw the video shortly thereafter, when it was tweeted by something like a dozen of the feminist activists I follow online. From there, it was in Daily Show territory and the rest is history. It was a very similar pattern to Limbaugh and Komen. Sure, there were interested groups and blogs in all these instances pushing the story - but they all caught fire on the merits (or demerits) of each story.

I believe that politics will be changed by networked feminism over the next few years. Twenty women in the U.S. Senate is what my grandmother might call "a decent start." But the big push - the one that can unite my mother, my wife, my daughter and my feminist network - may still be the Presidency.

There remains, to my somewhat jaundiced political eye, a gap between women candidates and networked feminism, between carefully planned and funded political campaigns and authentic wellsprings of anger, attention and action. In an excellent post on brands and feminist political involvement on the Harvard Business Review blog, Morra Aarons-Mele argues that the big business and political entities really don't get networked feminism's core strengths: "It boggles my mind that in this day and age, rather than listening to what women really care about, communicators simply often "pinkwash" products in an attempt to gain women's support — from the ill-fated "Bic for Her" pen to Ann Romney's "I Love Women" RNC Convention speech to the new pink Honda Fit."

Yet, she adds: "When a powerful meme meets a network of digitally connected women, the result is change."

I agree with that and I believe that politics will be changed by networked feminism over the next few years. Twenty women in the U.S. Senate is what my grandmother might call "a decent start." But the big push - the one that can unite my mother, my wife, my daughter and my feminist network - may still be the Presidency. One of the signature moments of the rollicking 2008 campaign, when an accomplished candidate came as close as any woman ever has to breaking two centuries of male hegemony in the executive branch, was when Hillary Clinton teared up in a New Hampshire.

This was before John Boehner's waterworks were a national phenomenon, before Rick Santorum let loose the wet stuff in Iowa, before Barack Obama cried in thanking field workers last week. And frankly, it was a bit before Twitter's time as well. Yet Hillary Clinton's moment of real emotion went instantly viral on the social networks of the day. And women reacted strongly - not so much to the candidate's tears (some were for her, and some against, after all) but to the reaction of the media in dismissing them as calculated and somehow inauthentic. The moment was brilliantly captured in Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry, the best book about the 2008 campaign, in which the author admits she "gulped out sobs" after Clinton eventually conceded the race - even thought she didn't start out as a Hillary backer.

That freedom to share real emotion - anger, sadness, revulsion, joy - is what powers networked feminism. It was a big part of the 2012 election story, but didn't define the race. This week, the polling outfit PPP placed two insanely early dipsticks into the Democratic oil pan of 2016. You know who leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. I don't even have to say her name. But she's the only candidate out there who can take the instant army of networked feminism and turn it into an electoral cause. The only question remaining is so simple: will she?

Tom Watson is president of CauseWired and a techPresident contributing writer.

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