Context Matters: Interviewing Political Women in the Age of Trump

In this, the second in our series of guest posts considering the role and significance of oral history during our current political climate, Natalie Fousekis reflects on interviewing women involved in California politics in the years leading up to and following the historic presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

By Natalie M Fousekis

On September 27, 2016 I walked in to the offices of the Feminist Majority Foundation to interview one of its founders, Peg Yorkin.  The office was abuzz with excitement over the upcoming election and the prospect of voting for the first woman President in U.S. History.  I sat with this 89-year-old feminist as she recalled the details of her life surrounded by photos of Yorkin with other feminist activists, Democratic presidents, and female political icons, including Hillary Clinton.  

Fousekis with Feminist Majority founders

Natalie Fousekis (middle) with Peg Yorkin and Kathy Spillar, founders of the Feminist Majority.

I interviewed Yorkin as part of the Women, Politics, and Activism Since Suffrage Project, which I launched in 2013 with the goal of recording stories of Southern California women who have been engaged in politics and activism from the 1960s to today.  My hope was to develop an archive of women’s stories so that when we begin celebrating the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2019-2020, we could share a body of interviews with women who shaped politics and policy in Southern California with scholars, students, and the community.  I wanted to provide more recent, local stories of women’s political power as well as reflections from the women themselves on the unique contributions of women to civic life.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas, Director of Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Eleven students in my 2013 oral history course conducted the initial interviews.  They recorded memories of immigrant women who led a rent strike in Santa Ana in the 1980s, mothers who demonstrated against police brutality after their sons were killed by police, mothers who defeated an effort to build a prison in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in east Los Angeles, women who worked to advance the Republican party’s goals, women who fought for gay and lesbian rights, and the woman who served as the first female mayor of an Orange County city.  While rumors circulated of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency at the time, no public discussion existed of Donald Trump’s presidential run.  After receiving major funding from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, in fall 2015 my students, the staff at the Center, and I embarked on two years of intensive interviewing with over 100 women who had/have been politically active in Southern California.

Norma Gibbs, the first woman to serve on the Seal Beach City Council and as the city’s mayor (1960-63)

In my grant proposal to Haynes, I suggested that “The current presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton… highlights the importance and timeliness of this project and will undoubtedly shape the views and perspectives of the women interviewed for this project.”  While I included this line in my proposal, I could not anticipate the myriad of ways Hillary’s campaign and her loss to Donald Trump would influence the creation of these narratives.  

As an oral historian, I have long understood that contemporary context shapes the narratives of my interviewees, but not until this project had a topic of study resonated so closely with the national conversation and discussion.  Almost daily, newspapers and online periodicals published articles discussing the issue of women in politics, the barriers these women faced, and the history of women’s political involvement.  Moreover, gender itself became a topic as the campaign intensified, with accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against Trump, daily scrutiny of Clinton’s outfit selection in contrast to Trump’s ability to throw on a dark suit and a red tie, differences in the ways the public evaluated the qualifications of male and female candidates, and the significance of Hillary becoming the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee.  

“I couldn’t be happier than thinking that there could be a woman President of the United States….  I also worry about sexism and I think that that will be rampant in the campaign.”  Joy Picus, 2015

With these contemporary events in mind, we developed questions to ask directly about Hillary’s candidacy, although many narrators referenced the current political context without prompting, expressing hope and optimism.  In April 2015, my first narrator, eighty-four-year-old former Los Angeles City Councilwoman, Joy Picus, said: “I couldn’t be happier than thinking that there could be a woman President of the United States. I really couldn’t be happier. I think [Clinton] has all the requirements to make an outstanding president. I also worry about sexism and I think that that will be rampant in the campaign. I think it will be rampant once she is elected. It was true of Barack Obama, racism, and I think it will be less veiled than the racism has been against Obama. I think it will be much more overt. That worries me, but not enough to say she shouldn’t be President.”  

Natalie Fousekis interviewing Nury Martinez

Natalie Fousekis interviewing Nury Martinez, Los Angeles City Councilwoman, in 2016

Narrators told powerful stories about watching Hillary accept the Democratic Party’s nomination in June 2016. For example, Los Angeles City Councilwoman, Nury Martinez (the only woman serving on the LA City Council at the time), recalls an emotional tale of her last-minute decision to attend the Democratic National Convention, flying on a red eye the night before Hillary’s acceptance speech without a hotel or credentials.

Nury Martinez, Los Angeles City Councilwoman (2013-present)

Even Republican women spoke to the importance of Hillary’s candidacy. Former city of Orange mayor and councilwoman, Carolyn Cavecche, responded: “Well, it’s funny because a lot of us who are more conservative have talked about it.  I think there will be great pride even if we don’t care for her or her politics.”   

Caroline Cavecche, former City Councilwoman and Mayor, City of Orange

The tone and conversation shifted after November 8, 2016, as many narrators grappled with Hillary’s loss as well as the fear and uncertainty that came with Donald Trump’s election.  Just three week’s after Trump’s election, I sat across the table from Cheryl Parisilong-time Executive Director of Los Angeles American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I did not ask Cheryl a question about Trump directly, but rather asked about the most critical issues her union faced today.  She looked at me, gave a long sigh, rolled her eyes, and paused before she said: “Well, we’re in a very different environment today, you know, with the election of Donald Trump, and what that’s gonna mean for the entire labor movement… I mean, I just think that we’re facing potentially kind of a full effort to decimate the power of the US labor movement.  So, this is a very serious time, and I don’t know the answers.  I know that this is a time to continue to organize.”

Cheryl Parisi, long-time labor activist and current Executive Director of Los Angeles AFSCME

I am just beginning to reflect and unpack the multiple ways the 2016 election shaped the interviews we conducted for the Women, Politics, and Activism Project.  Those I’ve shared above represent some of the most direct ways Clinton’s candidacy and Trump’s election shaped our narrators’ responses.  This spring I am on sabbatical and will spend much of my time culling the over 150 interviews in this collections for references, both subtle and obvious, to the current political context, paying particular attention to tone and outlook.  In a future and much longer piece, I look forward to sharing with you my observations, reflections, and conclusions about what we might learn as oral historians from our two years of interviewing in the Trump Era.

“We don’t want our daughters to slay the same dragons, we want to pat down the grass for them.  But at the same time it’s important to know their own history and the champions that came before them.” — Gloria Molina 

Like our narrators, I’ve had to grapple with my own disappointment and dismay at the results of the 2016 election.  One thing is clear: interviewing strong women who have been politically engaged for years while overcoming barriers and political opposition, yet still advocating for the issues they believe in, has lifted my spirits on more than one occasion. Since October I’ve continued to repeat in my head words spoken in my interview with Gloria Molina: “We don’t want our daughters to slay the same dragons, we want to pat down the grass for them.  But at the same time it’s important to know their own history and the champions that came before them.”

** Many of the interviews we recorded (and eventually all) are available in their entirety on the Women Politics and Activism website.

Featured image caption: CSUF 2017 graduate, Analia Cabral interviewing Maria Elena Durazo

Natalie Fousekis is Director of the Lawrence B. de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) and Professor of History at CSU Fullerton. She specializes in modern U.S. History, grassroots politics, women’s history, and oral history.  Fousekis has been engaged in oral history work for almost twenty-five years — conducting dozens of interviews, teaching oral history methodology to undergraduate students, graduate students, and community members. She is the project director for the Women, Politics, and Activism Since Suffrage Project.