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Here are 4 ways the West Virginia teachers' strike shows women's power in politics

When the West Virginia governor and legislature agreed last week to boost teacher salaries, it represented a major victory and show of political strength for the educators who had walked out on strike nine days earlier. Much attention since has focused on the fiscal consequences or whether the episode will inspire walkouts in other states.

But the strike also illustrates the ways that political debates still reflect the long-standing dominance of men in American politics and how collective action led by female teachers was able to confront and overcome what my research calls a “legacy of patriarchy.”

In my book manuscript, “Educating the Nation: Gender, Federalism and Women’s Empowerment in the United States,” I define the legacy of patriarchy in the United States as consisting of two features. First, men no longer dominate women as they once did in American society, with women now having more political power. Second, despite this fact, men still retain a dominant position in politics that is perhaps greater than many Americans realize.

Here are four ways the legacy of patriarchy shapes education politics today and helps explain how the West Virginia teachers’ strike unfolded.

1. The importance of women’s votes and voice

First, consider women’s right to vote. Before passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many American women lacked the right to vote. As I have shown elsewhere, this didn’t mean that women lacked influence in the politics of education. After the Civil War, women became the majority of teachers in every state and worked with civic clubs to lobby legislatures for school reform. In addition, women in many states gained the right to vote in school elections and were elected to county and state superintendent positions. The election of female superintendents in West Virginia and elsewhere helped improve education in rural areas.

In the decades since, women’s electoral power has also increased, especially when it comes to education. In 2016, Jim Justice, then a Democrat (and now a Republican), was elected governor of West Virginia with backing from teachers unions. That may have been central to Justice’s decision last week to support the pay raise that ended the strike. 

2. Women’s power in the teaching profession

Teachers and school personnel celebrate after the state Senate approved a bill to increase state employee pay by 5 percent at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail/AP)

Second, in addition to votes, occupational standing empowers women politically as they challenge patriarchy and its legacies. Education associations, in particular, draw their power from female workers and policy leaders.

But even this is a relatively recent development. The National Education Association, created in 1857, was controlled by men until 1910, when its first female president was elected. White men then retained disproportionate control until the civil rights and feminist movements entered the association, and classroom teachers — most of them women — took charge. By 1976, the NEA entered presidential politics for the first time, backing Jimmy Carter in his successful bid for president. Since then, teachers have been a major force to be reckoned with in national politics.

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But education politics is local, and being effective requires local organization. And while of course many teachers in West Virginia are men, teachers organizations in the state are mostly led by women. Seventy percent of 51 county presidents in West Virginia’s NEA affiliate and 59 percent of 37 county presidents in West Virginia’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate are women. This was a movement led by women, largely on behalf of female workers.

3. Men still occupy the vast majority of legislative seats

Third, as in most states, the West Virginia legislature is dominated by men. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women hold fewer than 15 percent of state legislative seats, the third-lowest percentage in the nation.

As a result, the school strike pitted a female-dominated profession of teachers (76.7 percent women) asking for higher wages (the third-lowest in the nation) against a state government dominated by men (85 percent male). This dynamic reflects both women’s historical exclusion from government and their capacity to be heard when sufficiently organized.

4. The political rights of teachers matter, but collective action matters more

Fourth, membership in a public-sector union is matter of political rights, not just economic interests. For public employees, the “boss” is the sovereign state. Because there are 50 sovereigns in the federal system, teachers’ rights are privileges from the state.

In 35 states, where schools boards must meet with teachers about work conditions, teachers have significant political power. In 12 other states, including West Virginia, teacher power waxes and wanes, as the law neither provides for nor prohibits bargaining. In three others, bargaining is prohibited altogether. Strikes are even illegal in 27 states. When teachers are not permitted to bargain or strike, securing higher wages is much more difficult.

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As West Virginia shows, however, simply possessing rights is not the primary source of teachers’ political power. Rather, their influence lies in the ability to withhold labor, no matter the statutory rights they have. One consequence of the strike is that it may have made it easier for teachers in the state to gain bargaining rights down the road.

Ironically, the political leverage female teachers have today is itself a legacy of patriarchy. When teachers from every county in a state decide not to show up at school, the economy stalls, as parents’ schedules are disrupted. One lesson from West Virginia is that when women are organized, they can emerge victorious even in the face of resistance from a male-dominated political system.

Michael Callaghan Pisapia is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University and a recipient of the Carrie Chapman Catt award from Iowa State University for research on women and politics.

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