Timing is Key in Successful Social Movements
The answer may lie in the timing, according to Sarah Soule , PhD, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of  Business  and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow , who studies the tactics and consequences of social movements and how activism influences public policy and perception.
Soule tracked thousands of U.S. newspaper articles from the 1960s through the ’90s, a period when Americans took on a wide range of social concerns. She and her team analyzed these records to pinpoint when social movements prompted the strongest response and had the greatest impact.
In studying the Equal Rights Amendment , Soule found that timing was crucial to the success of this social movement. She noted that organized lobbying appeared to have had a more direct effect on public opinion early on, when the issue was first being considered by legislators and state ratification bills were being introduced. When activists became more demanding or radical, she said, legislators appeared to become less receptive to associating with activist agendas, most likely because they did not want to alienate voters.
Soule also found that groups with insider allies, such as legislators sympathetic to the cause, make more progress. Today, she added, though there are more women in positions of political power, women’s issues may not necessarily be on the agenda.
Another component of her research points to the fact that women have historically mobilized around many issues, not all of which are considered feminist. For example, women took on many aspects of social reform, such as boycotting grocery chains to lower food prices and toy companies to recall violent items. Educational issues were also high on the agenda of women activists.
After the Equal Rights Amendment protests, which peaked from 1972-82, women took on other, non-feminist aspects of social reform.
“Women became political about other issues and moved their efforts into the private sphere,” said Soule. “They were still socially active but learned to use different tactics that focused more on community building, improving social services for women and building solidarity.”
As for the current women’s movement, Soule said that “women may be factionalized because there are so many issues today, and there’s a question of whether loss of focus leads to detrimental movement outcomes. That may be what is happening to the women’s movement today.”
Another facet of Soule’s research focuses on police response to public protests. She found that while violent protests and efforts that appeared to be targeting the government were most likely to invoke an aggressive police response, reactions were stronger when African-Americans were involved and less intense when women were involved. Police presence was also lower at women’s protests—perhaps because of gender-based stereotypes of women being less threatening, she said.