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Shaping the Future

Rosalind RosenbergRosalind Rosenberg arrived at Barnard in 1984, drawn by the same qualities that draw students to Barnard: the College’s commitment to women’s education, its liberal-arts tradition, its affiliation with a great research university, and its location in New York. “How can you do better than that?” she asks. Rosenberg’s book Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics (2004) charts a highly readable history of women at Columbia University in which Barnard played a significant role: the founding of the College in 1889, the opening of Columbia’s graduate and professional schools in the years that followed, the admission of women to Columbia College in 1983, and Barnard’s decision to remain independent were key events. Written at the time of Columbia’s 250th anniversary, Rosenberg highlighted the historical achievements of women as well as their legacy: “These interconnected stories turned out to be an important chapter in the history of American feminism.”

Writing that history is Rosenberg’s specialty, and certainly Changing the Subject is an outgrowth of her earlier work. Having studied at Stanford in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rosenberg came of intellectual age during the height of the women’s movement, which, she claims, “gave me my dissertation topic: the history of feminism. That dissertation became my first book, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism.”

The link between feminism and politics brought Rosenberg to this area of study: “Early twentieth-century feminists were virtually all suffragists, so an interest in feminism led to a curiosity about women in politics.” Surprisingly, not all early champions of women’s rights fully embraced the idea of a woman running for office. “Some suffragists, including many at Barnard, resisted the idea that women should plunge into party politics following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Suffragists certainly approved of women’s voting, and they joined such organizations as the League of Women Voters in significant numbers; but to many of them, partisan political activity initially seemed too sordid, too masculine,” Rosenberg explains. It appears that a majority of women still view politics as the realm of men, even when powerful female political figures exist in the United States and abroad. What challenges are women not overcoming? It starts with numbers: Since 1917, only a total of 260 women have served as U.S. Senators or Representatives. Rosenberg cites others, “Less than a quarter of state legislators are women. The United States has never had a female president.” However, Rosenberg agrees that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination were significant milestones for women (although they were not the first). Will they have a long-lasting impact? “Not on their own,” she says, “but as symbols of a larger transformation of the American political landscape, yes.”

If such a transformation is just taking place within the United States, why have some foreign nations readily and easily elected women as heads of state? The United States has seen great progress for women, so why do we fall behind in this regard? Rosenberg notes that women typically do better in countries “where class trumps gender and in countries where there is proportional representation—in contrast to our winner-take-all system of voting.”

What advice can she give for an American woman seeking a career as a politician? “Having a law degree helps,” says Rosenberg. “Almost half of those in Congress are lawyers.” The biggest challenge for a woman is money; also, the fact that politics remains a male world, one that does not necessarily welcome women.

Besides the need to raise money to run a campaign, the American voting system, and a general belief that politics is more suited to men, other factors enter into a woman’s campaign for elected office. Popular media may be sabotaging their efforts. Women have gained more rights, resources, power, and access over the past four decades, but at the same time distorted images of women have increased exponentially, from pornography to “bridezillas” to “real housewives,” and the list goes on. Rosenberg acknowledges that whenever women have pressed for change, they have always encountered a strong backlash, and even early campaigners for women’s rights were forced to counter popular images of their sex. She explains: “Suffragists were portrayed as destroyers of domestic tranquility. When they marched, they tended to wear white and often pushed baby carriages. The suffragists had one advantage over the feminists of the last decades: they worked in a period known for its progressivism.” Women in politics in the recent generation have had to work in a climate of “conservative ascendancy,” making their work all the more challenging.

Rosenberg continues to address many critical questions related to women and politics. Her latest research centers on the life of Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a lawyer, civil-rights leader, feminist, poet, and Episcopal priest. “Murray’s life makes clear that white women would not enjoy the political influence that they now wield (limited though that influence remains) without the political organizing of African-American women, work that dates back more than a century,” says Rosenberg. Thus, she brings to light how important achievements by one group allowed for gains by another. The story of women’s rights in America is a complex one, dependent on women’s political involvement from the grassroots level upward. When asked if the future of feminism is dependent on women’s involvement in politics, Rosenberg replies, “Yes. Only when women have gained parity with men in politics will the issues that have historically been most important to women be fully addressed.”

-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, photograph by Dorothy Hong