Inside USD

Alumna’s Political Science Role on the Rise

Thursday, March 28, 2013

When Cathy Wineinger entered the Grace Courtroom in USD’s Warren Hall for class last spring, she became a different person.

Wineinger assumed the political role of Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota — and at the time, a 2012 presidential hopeful — in a political science course taught by College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean and Professor Noelle Norton. The class offered a simulation of Congress’ inner workings so students could gain a deeper understanding.

“That’s one of my favorite memories of Cathy, watching her play the role of Michele Bachmann,” Norton said. “Although Cathy identifies as a liberal, she was anxious to take on the part of Bachmann because she wanted to take on a leadership role in the course. She played the role with gusto.”

Wineinger, who graduated last May with a political science degree and minors in Peace and Justice Studies and Spanish, said the class helped in preparation for her current role — she’s a first-year Political Science PhD student in the Women and Politics Program at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. She’s planning to do research on women in political parties, specifically conservative women.

“Honestly, I didn’t know that I wanted to study conservative women representation at Rutgers until after [the Congress] class,” she said. “I was really able to do an in-depth examination of Michele Bachmann to understand her perspective on political issues. Dr. Norton’s class also helped me get a better grasp of the rules, procedures, power structure and even gender dynamics of Congress. It’s a very complicated institution and Dr. Norton’s class did an excellent job preparing me for my program.”

Calling it “preliminary observational research,” Wineinger bought a ticket and attended the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. The event included an array of female speakers including several congresswomen and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Bachmann — the real one — was there.

Wineinger’s impression of CPAC was favorable. “It was great because after this past election, when there was a lot of war-on-women rhetoric, it might have been be a turning point for the Republican Party. It made the conservative right go on the defensive and they want to actively reframe principles, all of which can help women,” she said. “I went to a lot of panel events and every woman talked about the need for women to recruit other women to run for office. They talked about policy specific to women. I believe both the left and the right are starting to recognize that women are an important voting block.”

Wineinger’s keen observations demonstrate how quickly her passion has taken shape. She voted in her first presidential election in 2008. While Hillary Clinton and Palin were involved, Wineinger’s political awareness grew in 2010 with a summer internship at Equality California where she learned about working on a campaign. She was a field organizer for a political consulting group in San Francisco the next summer and a campus campaign coordinator for Teach for America.

She co-founded USD’s Women in Politics and Public Policy (WIPPP) initiative, an organization not built on political affiliations, but rather to empower young women, promote career opportunities and access strong connections.

“WIPPP sponsored an event last year where it brought in USD alumnae from different local political offices, both Republicans and Democrats, to share their message of the importance of having a seat at the table,” Norton said. “That’s what I liked about it. Let’s just make sure that that voice is represented.”

Karen Shelby, a visiting political science professor who earned her PhD from the same Rutgers discipline as Wineinger is enrolled in now, taught a few of her courses and mentored the USD McNair Scholar student.

“Cathy was an outstanding student who already had an idea of what she wanted to work on — exploring the impact of Latinas’ presence in the political system — when she came to me with her McNair project,” said Shelby (pictured, at right with Wineinger) said. “That Cathy has continued to study Women and Politics at Rutgers pleases me. I know she’s making a strong contribution to the program and she’ll learn quite a bit on the way to earning her PhD. … I know Cathy’s in the right place to follow her intellectual passion.”

While Wineinger acknowledged challenges going from undergraduate to PhD work, one obstacle disconcerting to all students is an amendment Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn has proposed to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research with specific exceptions.

“The amendment in HR 933 is definitely a direct threat to my research and the research being conducted by other political scientists,” she said. “The amendment would only allow the NSF to fund political science research that promotes ‘national security or the economic interests of the United States.’ That means that important research dealing with representation, voting behavior, interest groups, social policy, etc., is under serious threat.

“I think a lot of academic research has the potential to have a real-world impact,” she continued. “An example from my own life is the research being conducted on women and politics today. It was political science research on women’s representation that increased my awareness of the topic and inspired me to start WIPPP. I think this is a direct testament to the importance of research, and specifically, to the necessity of academic freedom. When women and politics first became a sub-field at Rutgers in 1987, gender politics was not viewed as an important area of research in the discipline. Today, it’s becoming increasingly respected. This is the problem with the Coburn amendment; it’s automatically writing off research others have deemed ‘unimportant’ but may actually have the potential to be very influential.”

Passionate talk on this important subject could make one wonder about Wineinger’s post-PhD plans.

“I could definitely see Cathy running for office one day,” Shelby said. “She’s poised, capable, and well-organized. She’d make a great elected official, dedicated to public service and the common good. As for a career in academia, I could absolutely see that as well. All of the above qualities, plus her sense of humor, would serve her well. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything Cathy couldn’t do if she put her mind to it.”

Wineinger enjoys being a “scholar of politics” rather than an “actor in politics,” but never say never.

“I’ve always said ‘no,’ but the more research I do on what I see as a gross underrepresentation, while it’s not a career goal, I could see myself running for office at some point,” she said.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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