Representing Women: The Transition From Social Movement To Interest Group

Date01 March 1981
Published date01 March 1981
Subject MatterArticles
University of Colorado, Boulder
CHALLENGE posed by new social movements and the response
of the political system are dynamic aspects of American policy for-
-Jo mation which have been neglected by most political scientists. Yet,
interaction between movements and the government has frequently resulted
in extending the range of political debate in the United States as well as
introducing new and innovative policy alternatives. Social movements raise
serious questions outside normal government channels, often concerning
subjects which are not being treated as topics of political concern. The re-
sponse of the government to demands by movements often results in ex-
panding the areas of government interest and involvement.’ For example, in
the 1960s and 1970s the United States government, responding to the de-
mands of the black civil rights movement, the environmental movement and
the women’s movement, involved itself in areas of policy such as integrating
the schools, eliminating sexism in job recruitment and monitoring environ-
mental impacts, which were previously considered beyond the scope of fed-
eral responsibility.
Yet despite the ease with which one can identify social movements that
have introduced important new elements to American politics, little attention
has generally been paid to the process by which social movements are incor-
porated into the political system. What factors determine the success or
failure of movements that try to gain access to the political system? This
study examines factors which allowed one movement - the women’s move-
ment - to make this breakthrough. It compares these factors with what is
known about other movements active in the same period.
The importance of such an inquiry is suggested by sociological research
that delineates the distinctive characteristics of social movements.’ This re-
search suggests that social movements typically arise in response to serious
disaffection with the current course of public policy. Movements encompass
both organized groups and unorganized, and usually indeterminate, num-
bers of followers. Although movements have boundaries, based on the
shared beliefs of their members and exhibit a degree of patterning among
their parts, these parts are not integrated in any unified structure. Finally,
social movements advocate major changes in the political and/or social sys-
NOTE: Support for the research on which this study is based came from the Center for the
American Woman and Politics of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. In addition,
Marilyn Johnson and Ruth Mandel of the Center provided valued encouragement and
advice. The author would also like to thank Andrew McFarland, Jeffrey Berry and Doug-
las Costain for commenting on earlier versions of the manuscript. Finally, the revisions
suggested by Fanny Rinn and Ellen Boneparth were very helpful in preparing the manu-
script for publication.
’Jack Walker, "A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy," American Political Science Review
60 (June 1966): 293.
2 These characteristics of social movements are taken from the following works: John Wilson,
Introduction to Social Movements
(New York: Basic Books, 1973); Ralph Turner and Lewis
Killian, Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1957); Rudolph Heberle, Social
Movements (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951); Neil Smelser, The Theory of Collec-
tive Behavior (New York: Free Press, 1963); and Mayer Zald and Roberta Ash, "Social
Movement Organizations: Growth, Decay and Change," Social Forces 44 (March 1966):

tems and are reluctant to rely totally on conventional politics to achieve these
Movements, then, are partially organized expressions of severe social
discontent. As such, their success in becoming a represented interest pro-
vides a significant test of the openness of the political system to new inter-
ests. Movements are hard for the government to preempt by incremental
policy shifts because movements emphasize radical change. For the same
reason, they are difficult for the system to accept since they are likely to
contain elements which challenge the system itself and thus question tradi-
tional power relationships. Their inclusion or exclusion from the political
process is an important indicator of the system’s ability to accept change.
The women’s movement is a large interest with the potential to exercise
strong political influence based on the size and geographic dispersion of its
members and the reality of serious organizational difficulties in bringing the
diverse needs and priorities of these members together into an acceptable
unified position.3 It provides an interesting example of the problems faced
by social movements generally in organizing as national interests.
Factors affecting the ability of the women’s movement to organize to
lobby the political system are drawn from 65 interviews conducted in the
period between Fall 1974 and Summer 1977. Principal reliance is on mate-
rial gathered in structured interviews with 17 individuals representing 14
organizations active in starting a lobby to represent women’s interests in
Washington.4 These interviews are supplemented by less formal discussions
3 Although large, geographically dispersed interests possess the greatest potential for political
influence, they are often the least likely to mobilize effectively to achieve this influence. As
Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) and
others have noted, it is rarely to the advantage of individuals to spend time in groups
whose benefits they are likely to receive regardless of personal contribution to the group.
This "free-rider" problem associated with the types of nondivisible benefits, like lower
prices and less discrimination, typically sought by large interests, limits their ability to
attract members into the formal organizations necessary to achieve real political influence.
As E. E. Schattschneider notes in The Semisovereign People (Hinsdale, Ill.: Dryden Press,
1960): "Special interest organizations are most easily formed when they deal with small
numbers of individuals who are acutely aware of their exclusive interests" (p. 34).
Interviews were conducted with representatives of fourteen organizations meeting the follow-
ing criteria: (1) each has an on-going interest in women’s rights which is central to the
organization’s purpose; (2) each makes a systematic effort to influence congresssional
policy relating to women; and (3) each has offices in Washington, D.C. Initial interviews,
lasting from forty-five minutes to two-and-a-half hours were conducted between September
1974 and January 1975. In most cases the director of the group’s legislative office
was interviewed. In a tew of the organizations either a lobbyist or the president ot the
group was interviewed instead. Less structured follow-up interviews were held through
March 1976 with selected organizations to check on current legislative activities. The
groups whose representatives were interviewed are: American Association of University
Women, November 19, 1974 and August 11, 1975; B’nai B’rith Women, November 19,
1974; Federally Employed Women, December 30, 1974 and May 7, 1975; Federation of
Organizations for Professional Women, January 3, 1975 and July 30, 1975; General Fed-
eration of Women’s Clubs, October 17, 1974; League of Women Voters, October 8, 1974
and August 14, 1975; National Council of Jewish Women, November 1, 1974; National
Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), September 20, 1974 and
October 1, 1974; National Organization for Women, October 31, 1974 and August 5,
1975; National Woman’s Party, January 23, 1975; National Women’s Political Caucus,
October 22, 1974; United Methodist Women, November 4, 1974; Women’s Equity Action
League, November 25, 1974; Women’s Lobby, December 3, 1974. Two additional organi-
zations seeming to meet these criteria declined to have representatives interviewed: The
National Council of Negro Women and the National Council of Catholic Women.

with twelve lobbyists who worked with the women’s movement in national
lobbying campaigns.5 In addition, 36 members of Congress and congres-
sional staff involved in considering legislation lobbied by women’s interests
were questioned in a less structured format concerning their contacts with
and impressions of the women’s lobby .6 Information concerning the experi-
ences of other social movements seeking to establish Washington lobbies is
used to examine the generality of factors which are found to be important in
the case of the women’s movement.’’
From these sources, three factors affecting movement access to the
political system are identified: (1) a major change in the external environ-
ment of the movement sufficient to break down membership opposition to
lobbying; (2) primary or secondary groups in society willing to assist the
movement in starting to lobby; and (3) supportive members of Congress
available to help direct early lobbying attempts. The experience of the wo-
men’s movement suggests that these factors in combination were sufficient
for this movement to achieve access to the political system.
Like most new interests the first problem for social movements in devel-
oping a national lobby was organizational. In starting to lobby decisions must
be made...

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