I Am a Congressional Caller: A Woman Explains Her Activism

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I Am a Congressional Caller: A Woman Explains Her Activism

In a recent study, it was revealed that women have made 86% of the calls to representatives since the election. Even more specifically, middle-aged women have made half these calls. To get a sense of scale, Senator Chuck Schumer’s office reported an average of one and a half million calls to the Senate in the first week of February alone. That wasn’t a one-week spike; that’s just a specific week in the midst of what’s become a sustained effort.

I’m one of those middle-aged women. So I feel eminently qualified to offer a perspective on why we make the overwhelming majority of these calls. If the comment threads to the daily calls to action I post on Facebook are any indication, I can verify women outpace men when it comes to reporting “done” about any specific call or set of calls.

Let me introduce myself as living up to nearly every cliché of a Hillary-loving middle-aged lady, from greying hair to a bleeding liberal, progressive heart. I wanted, amongst other things, to see little Charlotte and Aidan scamper across the White House lawn. I wanted my third grade daughter to see a woman become the President. Since November 9, I’ve been a mix of distracted, freaked out, enraged (I call it “RAGEY” all-caps) and determined. Very, very determined. The mixture has an extra dollop of unwillingness to take no for an answer when it comes to advocating for myself, a wholly new personal phenomenon that took nearly three million votes to lock in. After two decades, during which I’ve been more wrapped up in local endeavors, I’ve experienced a sudden, new iteration of my activist, NPR-obsessed self. I knew my efforts had to fit into the container of my everyday life. I read about Indivisible and “got it”: calls to representatives’ offices are counted and thus quite effective. I looked at calls as low hanging fruit so I grabbed them. As a result, my kids—and my husband, honestly—often roll their eyes at me. Their perspective upon my calls and constant postcard stream is to view my actions as somewhere between adorably silly and utterly ridiculous.

Readers, I ignore them.

Back to the original question: why are women the ones to make these calls? Here’s why: this isn’t glamorous work. It’s grunt work. You make a call; the call tends to last under a minute. You say your thing—“I want to keep health care for my neighbors,” or “I am in opposition to bans and walls and violent deportation.” The aide replies: “I’ll let so-and-so know how you feel, thank you.” And that’s that. There’s not a better way to sugarcoat grunt work but to liken it to so many domestic chores women traditionally take on disproportionately, such as the dishes and laundry. My current to-do lists often include both laundry and calls to my reps, which my friend Maggie describes as “democracy work.”

These calls, as we’ve witnessed with outcry over travel bans, certain cabinet appointments—cough, Puzder, cough, but also DeVos, Sessions, Tillerson and Gorsuch—and health care matter. They matter a lot. These calls represent a very important part of the 2017-citizen-pressure narrative, the one that has particular Republican representatives hiding from constituents. Some have even turned off their phones, like Paul Ryan, who then met a postcard avalanche at his home address because of the magical Internet. The calls jam up offices’ time.

However, grunt work doesn’t serve as a complete description. The calls do something more; they become vehicles to tell our stories. The stories people share make aides think and feel and speak to their boss about different things. Call it widespread trickle-up policy or grassroots activism by speed dial.

To make those kinds of connections—these calls, much like the one to the teacher about a problem in school, or for that matter, finessing the birthday party list—these sorts of calls create an unseen foundation for family life. These calls don’t necessarily factor into the routine “unseen” domestic sphere of work. They magically happen. They aren’t the executive functioning part of domesticity—the whos, wheres, whens, and hows of kids traveling from place to place and whether school functions are attended. They are quieter, more under the radar.

Who makes them happen? Women make them happen—and they usually do not ask for any credit. In fact, they often don’t realize how much this emotional work matters. This unseen, not-for-credit work is often considered innate to women. Maybe it’s accurate to imagine calls to representatives’ offices as a civic extension of under the radar work. Women attend to the country’s emotional needs, if you will, or at least the congressional offices’. If we look at it that way, it’s no surprise women represent the overwhelming majority of callers. We’re the ones accustomed to doing so. We just call. We call often. I have 150 representatives’ contacts in my phone; another friend has amassed a stack of handwritten committee lists.

Earlier this winter, I got Abby at Senator Warren’s office and she recognized my name. “We’ve spoken before,” she noted.

“Yes,” I replied, “I plan to be the best friend of your office by the time we’re through with this.”

She chuckled. Really. “That’s awesome,” she said.

She had no idea just how glad I was to hear that. It was a good reminder to continue my personal strategy, which is to call my reps, call others when I have a specific thank you to make, as counterbalance to when I feel I should call to ask for a different vote. For example, I make frequent calls to Chairman Chaffetz at his House Oversight Committee line to ask, again and again—and again—for him to investigate Trump’s finances, conflicts of interest, ties to Russia and the election, and, from day one, to make transparent Trump’s tax returns. It’s not so different, when you think about it, as the way you make a hard call to a depressed friend and counterbalance it with an easier check-in.

Like everything else, both emotional work and phone calls require practice. When I picked up the phone in November, I was much more nervous than I am these days. My eighth-grade son admits he’s afraid to make calls in general and just asked me to walk him through a how-to, which I did. Maybe he’ll start to make some calls this week and join the 14% of men doing this kind of work too.