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  • Motivated by Change: Political Activism of Young Women in the 2008 Presidential Campaign
  • Jane Booth-Tobin (bio) and Hahrie Han (bio)

A persistent gender gap in political participation has plagued American politics for many years. Although women are more likely than men to vote, they are less likely to engage in other political activities, such as volunteering for campaigns, being active in community politics, or discussing political beliefs among friends and co-workers (Center for American Woman and Politics [CAWP] 2005; Schlozman, Burns, and Verba 1994; Welch 1977). Although small, this gap in political activism has significant implications for women’s citizenship. Citizenship is, at its core, about the ability to exercise a voice in politics and make that voice heard by those in the government. Participation in politics is a key way in which men and women can make their voices heard. As Sidney Verba, Nancy Burns, and Kay Lehman Schlozman write, “Those who are less active pay a price in terms of representation. Public officials hear less about—and, therefore, presumably pay less attention to—their concerns, preferences, and needs” (1997, 1053). Without a voice in politics, women miss a fundamental piece of what it means to be a democratic citizen.

Resolving this gender gap in participation depends on changing our assumptions about why women become engaged in politics. We argue that traditional assumptions about what it means to be political may not hold for women, thereby suppressing female participation in politics. To examine this, we focus on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which—unlike other campaigns—engaged significant numbers of young women in campaign activism. A postelection survey of campaign activists under the age of twenty-five found that young women were 5 percentage points more likely than young men to engage in some form of activism [End Page 115] within the Obama campaign. Likewise, a 2008 study by CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) found that, of the 52 percent of young voters who turned out to vote, young women were 8 percentage points more likely to vote than young men (Kirby and Kawashima-Ginsberg 2009). Although the trends in voting among young women were not historically unique, the trends in campaign activism were.

To understand the reasons behind this dramatic rise in political activism among young women, we look beyond traditional understandings of what motivates political participation. Our findings suggest that traditional conceptions of politics are limited in their understanding of the factors that motivate young women to get involved. They explain the engagement of young men in politics, but do little to expand our understanding of participation among young women. The young women in our study are less likely to call themselves “political” in the traditional sense, but are more likely than men to be driven by a sense of wanting to make change and be part of a larger movement. To better incorporate women into our political system, then, we need to recognize the alternative factors that can draw women into politics. By exploring new ways to motivate women to participate, we open up the possibility of increasing women’s participation and strengthening women’s citizenship.

Understanding the Gender Gap in Participation

Although previous research has made large strides in expanding our understanding of the way resource disparities between men and women contribute to the gender gap in participation, questions about how men and women are motivated to participate remain unanswered. Previous research has not examined the possibility that nontraditional sources of motivation propel women’s participation. In addition, most research on the gender gap has focused solely on adult women’s participation. We focus particularly on young women and examine the possibility that women are motivated to get involved in ways different from those of men.

Given the strong connection between early political activity and lifelong habits, we cannot ignore youth participation when studying the gender gap in participation. Early experiences with civic and political activity can shape people’s orientations towards participation for life (Yates and Youniss 1996; Plutzer 2002; Jennings 1987). Understanding why young [End Page 116] women in 2008 were more likely to participate could potentially have important implications for understanding the political...