Both political scientists and pundits talk about geographic sorting: States, cities and even neighborhoods are becoming more uniformly partisan. This evident in even the smallest ways. For instance, when you go to the local grocery store, you will probably find a wealth of Democratic bumper stickers if you’re in an urban area, and a wealth of Republican ones if you’re in a rural area. For many of us, the preponderance of bumper stickers will match our own bumper stickers, suggesting that we are surrounded by people who share our political values.
Here’s why that may be wrong.
Secret groups of Democratic women are organizing deep in Republican territory.
Over the past two years, I’ve traveled to, spoken with and observed a secret group of progressive women in rural Texas. The group, which I call “Community Women’s Group,” or CWG, comprises 136 registered members whose small county went decidedly for Trump in the 2016 election. All the group’s members voted for Hillary Clinton, and all signed a confidentiality agreement before joining.
The first year of my research, recently published in the Journal of Communication, includes 22 interviews with these women shortly after the group came into being in November 2016. Across these interviews, I uncover women who are community leaders and business owners, some of whom worry that if their political opinions were to become known, they would not only be ostracized by their community but harmed. This is a fear made more potent because of their lack of anonymity and reliance on their neighbors for patronage. This fear is also driven by the culture of firearms in the state.
One woman spoke of her concern about putting up a yard sign because of her fear of retaliation and experience with violence from her community.
“As far as not wanting to put a sign in my yard” she said, “that was more … that was sort of a fear of the unknown because I think I live in an area with people who carry guns in their car. And I’ve also had the experience of having two of my animals shot.”
Another woman expressed her inability to be publicly political because it would hurt her real estate business.
“In the real estate business, there is great risk. To this day, I avoid discussion with any clients or potential clients. I can sacrifice my need to make a point because of the benefits that are attached to it, and that sounds really crude, but I am self-employed, and so you pick and choose your battles.”
Some women are starting to come out as Democrats
Although most of the women joined the group in hiding, many have since ‘come out’ of the political closet. Some have joined the Democratic Party, gone to protests and marches, knocked on doors, and put out yard signs. Most attribute their newfound bravery to the group itself.
One woman who joined a Knock Every Door campaign in the county said she was able to participate because she no longer felt alone:
If I had known, if somebody had told me eight months ago that I would be willing to knock on doors in this county, I would have said no way. I would have been terrified. And I’m still nervous about it, but because of the support of the group and because I think it’s going to do a lot of good, I’ll do it. It [CWG] has given me courage.
But not all the women have since come out. Many remain hidden because they want to avoid social conflict and are even fearful of being openly progressive in their community. Some refuse pictures with other members of the group who are open Democrats. Some voted for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the midterms, drove home, and told no one outside the group that they had voted for a Democrat.
This has broader implications for politics
The existence of this group does more than tell us about 136 women in a small county in Texas. Their experience of fear and intimidation challenges assumptions about democracy in the United States. That is, in a truly liberal democracy, people should be able to voice their views without fear of retaliation.
These women’s choice to engage and persist underground also challenges us to reconsider the privilege of being publicly political and the possibility that the things we see on the surface in our communities, the yard signs, the bumper stickers, are not the whole story.
When I share my research on secret groups, I’m often met with skepticism. ‘How much of this,’ people wonder, ‘is really happening?’ The problem of researching secret groups is obvious: If they are secret, by definition, it will be hard to find them and observe them.
Still, there is some reason to believe that secret groups may be more common than one would think. After the publication of my article and a radio partnership with WNYC Studios, my writing has led others to talk about their political experiences. In comment threads on Facebook and Twitter and in my email inbox, I read messages from many others who said they, too, felt the need to hide their partisanship from their friends or neighbors or were even part of a secret political group in their own community. Most of these messages were from women.
Some recounted having yard signs destroyed. Others recounted being verbally harassed while waiting in line to vote. One woman said she was hosting a secret group in rural Kentucky. Another said she was doing the same thing in North Carolina. These women, like the women in rural Texas, are not alone. In fact, they’re in good company, and my research says just the knowledge of that probably makes a difference.
Correction: A earlier version of a photo caption misidentified the women in the top photo. They are Kellie Macdonald, left, and Michelle Pellegri.
Emily Van Duyn is a doctoral candidate in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin.