Our Stories

A Great Year for Politics

Melissa Buis Michaux knows you're not supposed to talk about politics in public, but the politics professor is often too curious to stay away from the topic. She strikes up conversations about social issues and elections with cab drivers and airport strangers, and has engaged in a years-long conversation with her students.

"She ended our American Politics class with such an inspiring final lecture," says former student Tyler Reich '06, "that I asked when she was going to run for office. I want to vote for her." Michaux was his most challenging and inspiring professor. "She makes politics relevant."

"I suppose philosophers would disagree," Michaux says, "but I believe politics is the place where you can ask the most important questions. Some people think that ideas aren't important, that politics and parties are corrupt, but if you take a long view, parties are an important vehicle for democracy. At their best, they present voters with meaningful choices and connect citizens to their government. The health of our democracy depends on the mobilization of its citizens, so it's heartening to see more and more young people tuning in."

A self-admitted political junkie, Michaux began a life of campaigning and caring when she was in fifth grade. When her teacher stood to lose a job, she wrote a letter to the county commissioner protesting cuts in the school budget. "I got a nice letter back thanking me and informing me that the budget would go forward as planned," she smiles.

"It's funny that I should be into politics. Both my parents were politically agnostic, and in 1980 when I asked my grandparents if they were voting for Reagan or Carter, they told me it was none of my business."

Michaux has done a lot to plant seeds of political activism at Willamette, especially among women. Last year she sponsored a local chapter of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee (WUFPAC), an organization that encourages young women to run for office. "Women seem reticent to run for office," she says. "Men seem to need less encouragement, even though studies show that when women run they raise as much money as men and win as many races. It's important to promote the idea that politics isn't a male domain. More of my female students express interest in nonprofit work, but politics is where you actually get to effect change. Politics is all about deciding how we allocate resources."

Michaux also teaches "Parties, Elections and Campaigns" and directs Willamette's legislative internship program. "We have an army of students at the capitol across the street. Students often volunteer as an intern the first year, and by the second or third year they're running the office as chief of staff." Reich says it's pretty intimidating when students first walk up the big steps to the Capitol, but Michaux gives insider tips and teaches how government really works. "She tells us the things our boss won't tell us, but will love it if we know," he says.

Michaux isn't just on top of political strategies. She's a policy wonk, especially when it comes to welfare reform. She completed graduate studies in Boston, a city where homelessness and poverty are all too visible. "There were a lot of simplistic debates about a complex, hot-button issue, and people were ideologically polarized. The rhetoric in the mid-1990s was about blaming the poor for social ills, and full of misinformation about how people end up on welfare. What seemed to be missing was any sense that the poor are like the rest of society, or that welfare programs primarily benefit single and divorced women with children."

Michaux wanted to come to Oregon because the state was one of the early leaders in welfare innovation, and she visited welfare offices from the Columbia Gorge to Medford, seeking solutions with her research. "States are laboratories of democracy," she says. "In its best iteration, welfare must promote economic independence through work while providing support for child and health care."

Michaux also wrote "Making Mommies: Feminist Responses to Parenting Manuals" with history Professor Leslie Dunlap. Intended for a volume on feminism and popular culture, the chapter documents how feminism and the rise of intensive parenting have influenced parenting manuals since the 1950s. Manuals are now heavily prescriptive, Michaux says, even advocating that fathers monitor what their wives are eating while pregnant. In an effort to quell anxiety, the manuals actually produce more anxiety by placing all the responsibility for children's well being on parents, especially mothers, without challenging the political and social conditions that structure parenting choices.

As Michaux wrote "Making Mommies," two blonde girls smiled from a frame on her desk. Her daughters' hand-painted art decorates her office, along with a "Women Vote" poster and a certificate from her students: Most Likely to Teach Two 300-Level Courses with Morning Sickness OR Run for Office. This year she'll juggle chairing the Politics Department and the Women and Gender Studies Program.

But it will be okay. "I love being able to talk and read about politics for a living," Michaux says. "People always say, 'This is a great year for politics,' but they've been saying that since I started teaching. It's always a great year for politics."