Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 67-89
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A Comparative Study of Native American and Hispanic Women in Grassroots and Electoral Politics
Feminist scholarship exploring the role of women in politics has flourished over the decade of the nineties. Increasingly, social scientists are examining the leadership of women in grassroots organizations and in elected office to learn their motives, goals, and strategies for political leadership. 1 Much of this work integrates the study of gender, race/ethnicity, and class with scholarship on women's politics. Nevertheless, with some important exceptions, 2 relatively few of these works have specifically examined the political participation of Native American or Hispanic women. Furthermore, as researchers tend to focus their studies on either grassroots activists or public officials, rather than comparing these two groups, we know little of whether, or how, women in grassroots leadership differ from their counterparts in public office. 3 For example, how do the demographic characteristics of grassroots activists and public officials compare? What are their experiences of political socialization, and how do their experiences differ? What motives do activists and officials have for assuming political leadership, and how do these motives differ? How do grassroots activists and public officials acquire political leadership? And, to what extent are their leadership trajectories similar? In an effort to begin filling the gaps in the literature, this article seeks to identify some of the similarities and differences that exist among grassroots women leaders and women in public office, and to contribute to the growing scholarship on the politics of Native American and Hispanic women. 4
Characteristics of the Grassroots Leaders and Public Officials
Sixty political leaders participated in this study. They were equally divided between grassroots activists and elected or appointed officials in national, state, local, or tribal politics. Of the 60 leaders, the majority (50) consisted of 26 indigenous [End Page 67] women (25 Native North American women belonging to 17 Indian nations and one Native Hawaiian), and 24 Hispanas. The ten remaining leaders comprised six Euro-American women and four African American women.
The nonrandom sample was selected using a reputational "snowball" technique in which participants identified women active in New Mexico politics for inclusion in the study. New Mexico is an excellent setting for this type of research as the population includes significant numbers of Native American and Hispanic women.
Personal interviews, generally one to two hours in length, were conducted between 1994 and 1996 using a loosely structured interview guide. (Three leaders, however, were interviewed as part of a pilot project in 1991). Qualitative research methods were employed because these were appropriate for investigating the reasons for individual behavior. Consistent with the research goal of developing a rich profile of each of the leaders, the interview format of open-ended questions gave participants individualized treatment and allowed them to pursue related issues, expounding on areas they thought relevant. For example, use of the active interviewing technique allowed me to seek explanation from the interview subjects; to ask "Why?" and "How?" and to pursue new directions of inquiry with the research participants. 5
Leaders' Demographic Characteristics
The 60 leaders were diverse with regard to their demographic characteristics. While they ranged in age from 24 to 67 with a median age of 44 years, most (43 or 71%) were between 35 and 54.
Public officials tended to be older than grassroots activists, possibly because acquiring office—either by appointment or election—requires considerable experience and time. For example, some of the public officials who started out as activists only entered electoral politics later in their careers. Others waited until their children were grown and/or out of school before they pursued public office. [End Page 68]
Although there were some differences between the activists and officials with regard to their level of education, these were minimal. Specifically, while six (20%) of the activists had failed to go beyond high school (or even complete high school), only two (7%) of the officials had not received some postsecondary...