Hyde-Smith and the Test of Women’s Descriptive Representation

December 6, 2018

The Mississippi Senate race delivered more than its share of intrigue, curiosities, debates, and discussions as we moved to the close of the 2018-midterm election cycle. The Senate race developed as one for the history books – for all the wrong reasons. In part, it offered a significant challenge to engaging a politics grounded in increasing women’s presence in political institutions. Mississippi again found itself caught between the treachery of its racist past and the image of itself as a beacon of the brand new South. Mississippi actually leads the nation in the number of Black elected officials and recently led the South in the numbers of Black women serving in the state legislature. While these markers usher the state towards taking its place in the brand new South, this Senate race reminds us that the past is all too present. In the days leading up to the runoff, the Senate race became a prime example of the complexities of women’s intersectional politics and a quintessential case for testing the validity of descriptive representation as a meritorious strategy for political change.

Despite Mississippi’s opportunity to elect its first woman to the U.S. Senate or the first Black man since Reconstruction in this year’s race, the Senate contest was sleepy at its start, in part because its jungle primary was not held until November 6th, the first of a two-step process to choose a special election winner. With the primary candidates not garnering more than 50 percent of the vote, step two – a runoff election between the GOP front-runner and incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy – took place on November 27th. Though Mississippi’s rejected Espy as a historic first, the state still made history in electing Hyde-Smith. Note just how significant this change is for gender politics in the state: Hyde-Smith is the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi, and, in 2019, the state will remain one of four that has never sent a woman to the House. Mississippi also consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation for women serving in the state legislature. Within this context, a victory like Hyde-Smith’s would ordinarily provoke extraordinary celebrations of an historic first. Instead, though, her win was an extension of Mississippi’s torrid racial realities.

Is Any Woman Good for All Women?

For me, this Senate race is personal. Beyond my expertise as a scholar of race, gender, and American politics, I am also a Black woman, a native Mississippian, and one who embraces her true GRIT status– girl raised in the South–complete with a monthly subscription to Southern Living Magazine. This election caught me between that familiar space of the “personal is political” and an intellectual exercise on intersectionality in politics, a topic I regularly write about from a Black woman’s perspective. Many like myself, experience this nexus of race, gender, and geography rather acutely are concerned for what this Senate race signals about our beloved home state. Upon more profound introspection about this race, I found my uneasiness derives more from an uncritical adoption of descriptive representation, alone as a sufficient political strategy to move women’s advancement forward and transform political institutions. Generally, I am exceedingly supportive of descriptive representation. However, a woman candidate like Hyde-Smith evokes a primal tension is this political strategy for change.

In mid-November, just days to the runoff,  Hyde-Smith flagrantly delivered racist comments among her supporters during a campaign event, gleefully asserting that she would not only accept an invitation to a “public hanging” but “sit on the front row,” in a state with one of the weightiest, bloodiest lynching histories. Less than a week later, she labeled voter suppression a “great idea” since, “there’s a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who …maybe we don’t want to vote.” Once Hyde-Smith’s remarks became public, corporations including Walmart, Pfizer, Major League Baseball and others found her statements objectionable enough to request more than $25K in refunds from her campaign.

It seemed as if Hyde-Smith had done enough to prove her status as a “good ol’ girl” who could stand in the traditional system of good ol’ boys issuing racist dog whistles across the state. Then, on the Friday prior to the runoff, the Jackson Free Press uncovered that Hyde-Smith graduated from one of the Mississippi’s “segregationist academies” –  anti-school integration academies that flourished as white students sought sanctuary and fled integrating public schools following the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation orders that accompanied the court ruling. Hyde-Smith likely had little input in her family’s decision on where she attended high school; however, her own decision to send her daughter to a similar segregationist academy in the state is different and appears representative of her true values all too rampant in the segregationist, anti-Black culture across the South.

Hyde-Smith’s election brings forth the thorny issue that persists when considering women’s advancement in politics: Is “any woman” good for all women? In much of this work, we tend to follow a descriptive representation approach in which we advocate to increase the number of women representatives present in governing bodies as a matter of ensuring those serving in institutions reflect the demographics of the country. From this perspective, it is easy to unite a broad base of women and politics advocates to celebrate the 116th Congress’ increase in women’s representation. In our celebratory glee over the increasing numbers, we are less inclined to point to partisan, geographic or ideological differences among women. To the extent that we uplift any differences at all, we tend to note the advancement of women of color as a distinct measure of women of color elected in relation to the overall number of women of color in the U.S. population.

Hyde-Smith’s election troubles many of the assumptions and expectations that drive our motivations and investments in electing more women to public office. Generally, we expect women to elevate governance, elevate democratic principles (intentional small “d”) and perform as true “stateswomen.” At the most basic level, we invest in descriptive representation because we expect that different voices at the table will heighten the quality of deliberations. We support descriptive representation as a means of legitimating the abilities of women to engage in governance as leading actors. As Gender Watch 2018 experts Dittmar, Sanbonmatsu and Carroll attest in their new book, with more women present in congress we expand notions of what women are able to do, we disrupt ideas of congress as the sole purview of men, and we add new dimensions to congressional debates.

Why We Support Descriptive Representation

We do not support descriptive representation because we expect women to act as a monolithic

group. In fact, the support for descriptive representation is inherently a recognition that difference enhances the democratic process. Our Gender Watch 2108 experts are clear that women have differing stakes in politics and that women represent a wide spectrum of views and interests. Collective investments in descriptive representation allow us to set aside expectations of shared policy interests and instead invest in the principles of good governance. Increasing descriptive representation is associated with a host of positive outcomes for democracy, including strengthening connections between constituents and their representatives, increasing trust in government, and improving the overall quality of deliberations. Our focus on increasing descriptive representation among women is about strengthening the claims of our status as a representative democracy.

Most importantly, in a representative democracy, some of our strongest expectations are that our representatives will operate with shared respect among members of governing institutions and deliberate with a modicum of civility. This has proven an especially important expectation of the U.S. Senate given its constitutional representative function; women senators have historically taken that expectation seriously and pledged to uphold those values.

The white supremacist, segregationist values that Hyde-Smith espoused during the election season nullify and reject the prioritization of equality of all in the U.S. Senate and in our country. Bearing enthusiastic support for a “public hanging” and advocating voter suppression are far beyond simply failing to share political interests, and instead assault the core elements of our democracy: equality and humanity.

Competing Politics  –Intersectional Analyses –Black Women Mobilized

Fully capturing the story of gender politics in the Mississippi Senate race requires an intersectional approach that focuses on acknowledging the historic first of Hyde-Smith’s election while also recognizing the rigorous efforts and organization of Black women voters across the state to energetically oppose her election.

Black women’s influence in defeating Roy Moore in the neighboring red state of Alabama was in no way lost on anyone with an eye on the Mississippi race. The GOP realized that Black voter mobilizations could yield the loss of another U.S. Senate seat in a deep-southern state. The GOP deployed an all hands on deck approach in Mississippi, evident in the president and vice-president traversing the state on Hyde-Smith’s behalf through the weekend prior to the runoff election.

Recall, as recently as 2014, Black voters in Mississippi exercised influence over this very senate seat. Black voters helped to send Thad Cochran back to Washington during a tumultuous Republican primary runoff challenge from Chris McDaniel who used seedy campaign tactics; celebrated his ties to the neo-Confederate movement; and regularly engaged in racially charged statements. An unusual number of Democrats and Black Democrats in particular mobilized to expand his electorate and defeat the McDaniel challenge.

That Espy came within striking distance of Hyde-Smith in a state deemed “ruby red” is a testament to Black women’s organizing on the ground. Black women took up the challenge to mobilize Black voter turnout. The Black electorate in Mississippi is the largest in the nation at 38%.  National Black women’s organizations like the Black Women’s Roundtable and their local chapters alongside Black woman led-Black Voters Matters’ “South’s Rising Tour” pushed mobilization across the state. These groups utilized their mobilization tactics and strategies fresh from their work expanding the electorate in the Stacey Abrams campaign for governor in nearby Georgia.

Hyde-Smith’s racist appeals to white supremacy and white nationalism, markedly beyond a mere dog whistle, energized Black women’s mobilization efforts. The seismic energy of Espy supporters led by Black women combined with elite and media criticism of Hyde-Smith’s racism served to rattle the GOP so much that a flood of campaign dollars along with visits from the president, vice president and other GOP star power arrived on the eve of the election.

Black women’s power to mobilize and expand the electorate is likely to bear fruit for Black women’s political futures in the state of Mississippi. If we again look to Alabama as an example, Black women emerged as candidates for public office across Alabama following their successful mobilization to elect Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate. The energy they galvanized clearly did not disappear, but went into high numbers of Black women emerging as candidates in their own right. National organizations like Emerge took note and began targeted trainings to harness the political power of Black women in Alabama. Mississippi is primed as the next state to experience such a surge. Black women in Mississippi are no strangers to breaking political barriers and have a recent history as one of the states to lead the nation in Black women elected to the state legislature. Following this Senate race and their energies across the state, we can expect to see more Black women moving from voters to candidates for office.

This race offers us all big lessons. We must rethink the sentiment that “all women” are good for democracy and consider that some are an affront to democratic principles. Hyde-Smith’s election not only volatilely clashes against the fate and interests of Black women voters in Mississippi who organized vigorous voter turnout mobilizations in opposition to her, but also condones the violation of principles of equality for all that undergird women in politics scholarship and activism. This is a conflict we seldom like to face and a discussion we often neglect to have, as the contradictions inherent in Hyde-Smith’s success quickly unravel the delicate threads that link advocates for increasing women’s representation. We cannot expect those who favor a strengthened democracy, and in particular Black women in the state of Mississippi to concede that what is deemed good for women is indeed good for all women. But we must have this discussion. Let’s start now.

Wendy Smooth is an Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science at The Ohio State University.