Women for Action: Enacting a Gendered and Discursive Political Practice in Western Pennsylvania

Maceyko, Melissa, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lefkowitz, Daniel, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

In the fall of 2012, a group of women from Southwestern Pennsylvania came together to form a grassroots political group. They named the group Women for Action (WFA). The creation of this group was motivated by their disdain for the political practices encouraged by formal political organizations, their despair over the politically-based divisiveness in their local community, and their concern for the visible everyday impacts of poor policy decisions. In an effort to realize their own vision for democracy, and effective democratic political practice, WFA members sought to elevate a discursively based political practice that emphasized dialogue and consensus building discourses.

Alongside voting, citizens’ discursive engagement in democratic politics is considered a basic ingredient for the making of viable democratic nation states—those in which the wider public systematically participates in and exerts control over the decisions made by their government. Such discursive engagement between and among citizens is often theoretically framed as orienting toward one of two distinct styles of talk and interaction: agonistic debate or consensus building discourse. According to both scholars and citizens, in the United States, discursive engagement in “politics,” or “serious” democratic political practice, is primarily identified by an orientation toward agonistic debate (see Tannen 2000). Ideologies of gender, and gendered discourse, in the wider United States, which label consensus as feminine and agonism as masculine, map onto such political models. This perpetuates not only the subordination of consensus building discourses in democratic political practice, but the subordination of feminized citizen-actors as well, effectively positioning these actors and speech styles, as well as their entailments, as “apolitical.” (see Landes 1992; Brown 1995; Hanisch 1970; Litosseliti 2002). Insofar as citizens create and recreate democracy in practice (Bourdieu 1999), such orientations and mappings advance a particular vision of democratic political systems, political subjectivities, and political participation.

Using analyses of discursive interactions in WFA meetings and public events, Organizing for America (OFA) political scripts, and interviews with WFA members, this dissertation investigates the potentially conflicting expectations for democratic politics and political decision-making inherent in the use of different discursive political practices, as well as the ways in which the re-inscription of gender and language ideologies are empowering and dis-empowering for women in political contexts. This dissertation argues that by using ideologically gendered styles of talk and interaction to position themselves as local women, to cultivate what I call a semiotics of equality, and to speak authoritatively with other local citizen-voters in political contexts, WFA members were able to build a gendered political practice that both challenged and reified dominant political and gender based ideologies. This study illuminates not only how altering their discursive political practice led to WFA members’ personal empowerment in political contexts, but also how this shift was used to enact an alternative vision for the way in which American democratic politics might be understood, and understood to be effective.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Democracy; Public Sphere Discourse; Language Ideology; Women; United States; Grassroots Political Activism; Gender Studies; Linguistic Anthropology
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