August marks the 95th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States. As great a watershed moment as that was, it took years for women to win the same rights as men. One glaring example: it wasn’t until 1967—some 56 years later– that women could serve on juries in all 50 states.
While some states allowed women to sit on juries as early as 1911, and some awarded the right along with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, most states restricted jury seats to men well into the mid- century.
Why did some factions of the movement win faster? The answer to that question—“strategic adaption” –holds valuable lessons for today’s change-makers and movement builders.
Dr. Holly McCammon of Vanderbuilt University has spent her career studying why some factions of the jury movement won faster than others.
McCammon defines strategic adaption as a “set of critical steps in which activists adapt their tactics and discourses to developments in the broader political and cultural environment.”
According to McCammon, in the early 20th century, jury activists–made up of the league of women voter organizations, business and professional women’s clubs, and branches of the national woman’s party–engaged in strategic campaigns. Their campaigns included lobbying state lawmakers, organizing mass letter-writing campaigns, staging protests, holding rallies, and using the local media to bring about favorable public opinion and mobilize support for jury bills.
McCammon says the strategic adaption model typically involves four critical steps:
First, McCammon says that fundamental to the various state level movement’s success was “having a finger on the pulse of the contentious arena.” That is being alert to signals from movement opponents, various publics, allies, potential allies, and the general culture itself.
Signals, particularly those that provide insight on the movement’s setbacks and failures, provide clear direction as to the next steps to succeed.
For example, McCammon discusses the strategic response of jury activists in California in 1915 following a loss in the state legislature.
“In 1915, the jury rights movement was stymied in its first attempt to gain passage of a new jury law. Gail Laughlin, representing the San Francisco Center of the California Civic League. . . argued before the legislature that 75,000 women of the state wanted the right to sit on juries. The California Senate in the end voted the bill down, and Laughlin and her colleagues worked to make sense of the defeat. They quickly realized that various lawmakers sent clear signals explaining their unwillingness to support a change in jury law. For instances, Senator W.E. Duncan wrote Julia George, another movement activist, that he questioned the accuracy of claiming 75,000 women want to sit on juries…. Jury activists turned these lawmakers’ signals about why legislators did not support jury rights into lessons about how the women should alter their strategy and tactics to win. . . Over the next two years California activists implemented an adaptive strategy. (They) worked on a vigorous educational campaign …to educate the public on the issue. The strategic analysis and adaption paid off. Opposition inside and outside the legislature waned, and during the 1917 legislative session, women in California gained the right to sit on juries as lawmakers were finally persuaded that women did indeed want to sit on juries.”
Second, following signals, activists assess and analyze their own actions. During this stage, the movement engages in self-reflection and self-evaluation of tactics, and consider ways to strategically respond to signals.
For example, activist groups responded strategically and quickly to oppositions by focusing on increasing their political support
Jury activists in Illinois actively sought endorsements from judges “who were willing to speak out publicly in favor of women on juries… legislators had repeatedly told activists that they opposed jury rights for women because of their belief that women did not want such rights. Speeches and letters by political elites were an attempt to persuade lawmakers to support the jury bill by offering alternative arguments.” This was a calculated move to shift the conversation away from whether women even wanted to sit on juries, and onto highlighting the growing political support for the bill.
Third, successful movements adjust their strategy based on critical signals and self evaluation. Successful groups are flexible and adapt, and create new tactics that, based off of their evaluation, are most likely to succeed.
McCammon notes that “the most successful tactics are those tailored to the signals sent from the contentious arena about what is needed to succeed.”
For example, activist groups used different framing strategies to reach the head and the heart of lawmakers and the general public. One framing strategy that was particularly effective was the use of wartime framing. In states like Missouri, Nebraska and Vermont, bills that allowed women to sit on juries were passed during World War 2. McCammon attributes these successes to activists framing that used the war as a rationale for jury rights.
In 1942, to persuade Vermont voters, one activists argued “equality and justice under the Stars and Stripes is the principle for which we are waging this war… This election day gives the voters here at home an opportunity to express themselves… in order that our talk of equal rights and freedom may not be simply an empty boast.” In this case, Vermont activists used the war as an opportunity to strategically connect to the values and beliefs of the American people.
Lastly, movement actors and groups must continuously follow through on their changed tactics.
McCammon found that in faster states, activist actively engaged more continuously, than those in slower states. For example, “California, Illinois and Wisconsin had nonstop organizational engagement. New York’s women worked on jury campaigns 95% of the time and Tennessee’s women devoted their efforts in 89% of the years. These five states, all of which responded strategically to defeats and opposition, had the highest levels of organizational engagement.”
McCammon’s strategic adaption model, based on empirical examination of the jury rights movement, provides us with insight for how to win faster:
Keep your finger on the pulse of the contentious arena, respond strategically to signals, adapt strategies to cultural events and tap into values and beliefs strategically, and lastly, never stop pushing and trying new things to move your movement forward to win.