Simien Publishes New Book

Professor Evelyn Simien of POLS and the Institute for Africana Studies published a new book with Oxford University Press titled Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics. We spoke with Dr. Simien about her new book. 


How did you first get interested in this topic?

Sarah Cote Hampson, a graduate student in the department of political science, asked me to read her Ph.D. comprehensive exam in American politics.  More specifically, she asked me to evaluate her answer to the question I wrote on intersectionality. After reading her response, I asked whether or not she’d be interested in co-authoring a paper with me. The manuscript later received a “best paper” award from a regional conference and served as the catalyst for this book. Later, I was asked by the Hartford Public Library to facilitate a discussion immediately following a film viewing of “Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed” during women’s history month. This opportunity prompted me to write up some comments and do a little preliminary research on Shirley Chisholm.  I became more interested in Chisholm and her legacy as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Sarah and I had originally co-authored a paper that juxtaposed Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama using data from the 2008 American National Election Studies. This work became the basis for two separate chapters in the book on each respective candidate.  It was the timing of the women’s history month program at the Hartford Public Library that inspired the additional chapter on Chisholm.  Later, I felt I had to talk about Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in 1984 and so, the book evolved quite naturally into this larger monograph on all four candidates: Chisholm, Jackson, Clinton, and Obama.  Along the way, I secured small grants from the Department of Political Science and the Africana Studies Institute that supported both graduate and undergraduate research assistance as well as my travel to the Chisholm archives at Rutgers University and Brooklyn College.

What should people today remember about Shirley Chisholm’s presidential efforts?

Shirley Chisholm was bold and fearless. Her representational style was awe inspiring. As the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Representatives from the 12th District of New York (Brooklyn), she established a descriptive-symbolic connection with her constituents that few politicians could duplicate both then and now. Shirley Chisholm fully understood the process by which elected representatives “stood for” their constituents and she was particularly cognizant of her status as a “historic first.” As such, she possessed a strong desire to behave in a way that members of her home district would be proud and–because she was descriptively like them–proud of themselves as well. Chisholm explained the significance of this role when she stated: “…I know the independence I exhibit is not acceptable to the professional politicians, but is perfectly acceptable to the people of the community who elected me.”*

Did this research affect your thinking about race and gender? 

I’ve been thinking about race and gender in relationship to politics since graduate school. This project in particular did more to shape my thinking about representational styles and what it means to be “intersectionally marginalized” as a candidate running for presidential office. Understanding that Black votes could amount to the “margin of victory” for the eventual Democratic nominee, Chisholm and Jackson established a kind of “brokerage politics” through unconventional, alternative means and exerted a pro-leverage strategy to participate in behind-the-scenes bargaining and to rise in the ranks of senior leadership at national party conventions. Both their representational styles and campaign strategies are discussed at length in the book. I argue that Clinton and Obama are indebted to this pioneer cohort. By being less ardently liberal than their predecessors, Clinton and Obama achieved viable electoral success through tactical maneuvers that were less dramatic, and flamboyant. Arguably, they adapted to the political landscape by being less system-challenging and ideologically moderate, but not without recognizing the importance of key voting constituencies in American presidential elections.

That said, analyzing Jackson and Obama as gendered candidates is just as important as analyzing Clinton as a gendered candidate—the difference being, of course, that Obama and Jackson would be privileged (relatively speaking on account of their maleness) and Clinton would be disadvantaged (relatively speaking on account of her femaleness), but the analysis of Chisholm is attentive to race and gender, simultaneously.  At the same time, and no less importantly, Chisholm and Obama are analyzed relationally to Clinton’s position as a race-privileged candidate on account of her whiteness. Rarely do we frame Black heterosexual men in intersectional terms, as I do here. This aspect of the manuscript is probably the most trailblazing as I demonstrate the theoretical capacity of intersectionality-type research for generating alternative explanations for electoral outcomes and political behaviors, which is key to more fully understanding American government in an increasingly diverse and divided democracy. Intersectionality-type research in the field of political science has generally focused on investigating African American female subjectivity. As a theoretical frame, it also provides a means to interpret the impact of respective candidacies and their mobilizing effect on voters from various racial, ethnic, and gender groups.

What is your central argument?

Historic firsts change the nature of political representation especially when the identity of the candidate serves a priming influence and affirms an ego-enhancing relationship. The idea is that a strong psychological attachment or affective intragroup emotion like pride heightens the value of intrinsic rewards associated with voting and participating in other ways especially among those for whom the candidate represents descriptively and symbolically on the basis of group identity—for example, race and gender. The concept of symbolic empowerment is a hybrid term that conceives of descriptive and symbolic representation as inseparable, assuming that historic firsts can be both representative and symbolize in electoral contests.  It is the presence of a historic first that brings formerly inactive people once denied the franchise into the presidential selection process and stokes the desire of those historically underrepresented to get involved in other ways beyond voting on account of a descriptive-symbolic connection with the candidate established by their campaign strategy and representational style.

Did anything you found surprise you?

Both the candidacies of Jackson in 1984 and Obama in 2008 had an empowering effect on women that trumped any resource deficit  attributable to a masculine advantage in politics. The extant literature suggests that women are less likely donate money because they earn lower incomes than men.  During respective election cycles, women were likely to outperform their male counterparts across various modes of political behavior from donating money to proselytizing about the campaign.

The results for Clinton’s candidacy were mixed with women of color—particularly, Latinas being the most supportive of her. That Latinas would make Clinton their preferred choice would imply a mutual relationship or recognition of her candidacy in a particular way. What remains unclear is whether that choice is rooted in their shared gender identity or racial distancing on account of Obama’s Blackness.

*Reference: “New Faces in Congress,” Ebony, 1969, pages 57-59.

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