Imagine a country in which a group of people makes up over 50% of the population, earns more than 50% of college degrees, and makes up more than 50% of voters, but that group only has 20% representation in the government.
That sounds crazy, right?
But that is how it is today in the United States. Women make up a little over 50% of the U.S. population and more than 50% of voters. In addition, more women hold college degrees than men, but women still only make up 19.6% of the United States Congress and 25.4% of state executive officials.
Despite the fact that women vote in equal numbers and are well-educated, women in the United States still make up a smaller part of the government and have much lower representation than in many other countries. The United States has never had a female president, even though many other countries in the world have had female leaders. Starting in the 1960s, other countries worldwide have elected female Heads of State and yet the United States has still not even had a female vice president and has had very few female governors (Abrams) .
Even by looking at this map of North and South American countries with female leaders, it is evident the United States is far behind in terms of female representation and leadership .
As a girl who has grown up in a very liberal part of the world with two moms, I have considered myself a feminist for most of my life. Through my upbringing and personal beliefs, I’ve always had a hard time accepting the lack of women in powerful positions in our government. I have always supported women in powerful positions and have always questioned while growing up why there has never been a female president, especially while many other countries have had successful female leaders. I think that it is shameful how far behind the US is compared with other countries that have had women leaders. The lack of female representation in the state and federal government disadvantages women in many ways. For example, women representatives are much more likely to pass legislation that would help women, such as laws regarding reproductive health, paid leave, and domestic abuse (Kliff). The under-representation of women in government results in part from the way women were treated in the past and the historical obstacles to women’s political participation in the United States.
HISTORICAL LIMITS ON WOMEN’S POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AND RIGHT TO VOTE.
Starting in the very beginning in the 1600’s, when America was first colonized, women were at a disadvantage politically. With the new colonies came the principle of coverture, under which women ceased to legally exist as a person once they were married. Women had very few legal rights, certainly not the right to vote. From the 1600’s through the 1800’s, women did not obtain any new legal rights and there were no major movements towards securing more rights for women.
The Women’s Rights movement first gained momentum in 1848 when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first established the Seneca Falls Convention for the Women’s Rights Movement (“Woman’s Suffrage History Timeline.”). At that first convention, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration of Sentiments was a document listing the grievances of women against the government of the time. It highlighted the unfair legal treatment of women, such as how women could not own property, among many other things. At the time, this document was an incredibly controversial and revolutionary move. Never before had women, and men, asserted that the political and social treatment of women was unfair and that it needed to change. While the Declaration of Sentiments was an important first step towards creating gender equality, it did not include the right for women to vote, because it was thought to be too radical for the time.
The Women’s Rights movement progressed from the 19th to the 20th century and so did the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. In 1916, the first woman, Jeannette Rankin was elected to Congress (“A Brief History of Women in American Politics.”). But even after she was elected, there have only been a small number of women in Congress. Since Jeanette Rankin’s election more than a century ago, only 307 women have served in Congress, with 46 of them serving as senators.
Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Shortly after gaining the vote, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Women’s Party, proposed an Equal Rights Amendment in which men and women would constitutionally have equal rights, but the Amendment was sadly rejected (“A Brief History of Women in American Politics.”). Yet, after gaining the right to vote, many women fell into a sense of complacency. And, very few women even tried to run for elected office.
It was not until the 1960’s that the women’s rights movement and the push for political participation was revived in a second wave (“History of the Women’s Rights Movement.”). In 1961, Esther Peterson began to work with President Kennedy to create the Commision on the Status of Women that documented the discrimination against women in all aspects of life, in order to see where conditions could be improved. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed which prevented employment discrimination based on sex, race, religion, and nation origin. While the Commision on the Status of Women had been established in good faith, it was ineffective in pursuing complaints of gender discrimination. This led to the construction of the National Organization for Women in 1966 (“History of the Women’s Rights Movement.”). However, NOW and the women’s rights movement was not able to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, no doubt in part because there were very few women holding elected office. Even after the second wave of the women’s rights movement, there was still only very limited percentages of women in office increasing over then next roughly fifty years from less than 10% of state legislatures and less than 5% of Congress to less than 25% of state legislature and less than 20% of the United States Congress today.
WOMEN’S CURRENT REPRESENTATION IN GOVERNMENT AND MAJOR OBSTACLES TO PARTICIPATION.
While it is clear that the Women’s Rights Movement has made incredible progress from the 19th century to today, women are still a minority in terms of government and political jobs. As illustrated above, only 24% of State Legislatures, and only 19% of federal Congress members are women (Kurtzleben). Additionally, women make up only 12% of governors, and in 2016 the first woman to be a major political party’s nominee lost the election to a man who had virtually zero political experience compared to her years of government experience and many accomplishments (Kurtzleben).
“FiveThirtyEight: Women in Politics.”
One of the major obstacles to women’s representation in government is that very few women run for political office and even fewer are nominated as a candidate by one of the major political parties: either the Democratic or Republican party. In the last major election in 2016, for the Democratic Party, less than 25% of people filing to run on the party ticket were women and less than 30% of the ultimate Democratic nominees were women. For the Republican Party the statistics were even lower with less than 15% of the people filing to be on the ticket and around 10% of the nominees were women. In terms of people elected, for the Democratic Party almost 32% were women, a greater number than those nominated. However, for the Republicans it was the reverse with approximately 9% of elected officials as women, almost 1/4 that of the Democratic Party.
Another major obstacle is that women candidates do not have the same financial support. In order to become a major political party’s nominee, a candidate needs money to support that effort until they can obtain the financial support of the party. More often than not, women not only need the encouragement but also financial backing, which is why programs like Emily’s List are so important as they provide women with the means to run for office. Simply put, even if more women were encouraged to and did run for office, many of them would not have the necessary financial capacity to successfully run a campaign (Chira). Due to hundreds of years of economic inequality, women need more financial backing than men do when running for office.
SOLUTIONS TO INCREASING WOMEN’S REPRESENTATION IN ELECTED GOVERNMENT POSITIONS.
One big step that the U.S could take towards eliminating the gender gap would be to implement quotas to improve gender inequality within political parties (given each party’s consent). Political parties could create certain goals for things such as party leaders and candidates.
Applying quotas within governments have been proven to be a successful method in various countries, such as in Rwanda where “women occupy 51 out of the 80 seats” in a lower house of parliament (Adewunmi). While the idea might seem strange to some, a fair number of countries have started to implement sone sort of electoral quota (“Gender Quotas.”). In countries such as Morocco, political parties have agreed to place quotas reserving seats for female representatives (“Gender Quotas.”).
However, due to our country’s Constitution and the people’s right to choose elected officials, mandating quotas or equal representation within the actual US or state governments would not be possible. In other words, it would not be possible to say that at least 50% of Senators and 50% of state legislators had to be women.
Instead, with the parties’ consent, such as in Morocco, quotas within political parties could have similar effects in terms of the number of women elected to office. For example, if political parties agreed upon a goal of having 50% of their leadership and candidates be women, that would encourage more women to run for office and the parties’ efforts to identify women candidates, while also respecting everyone’s right to choose their elected officials. Each party can, and should, set a goal that 50% of party candidates are women. In other words, in California for example, the Republican and Democratic Parties would set a goal that 40 of the 80 seats up for election in 2018 in the state legislature would have female candidates.
Already, a number of programs encouraging women to run for political positions exist (“Strengthening Women’s Rights and Political Participation.”). Women are generally less likely to run for office, so these programs provide helpful support but they are not alway enough (Ripley). Unlike men, society does not encourage women to run for political offices or to achieve financial success (Chira). That means that in order to really create gender equality in politics we need to change what we teach boys and girls from a young age, as well as provide women with the necessary monetary needs for campaigning. In addition to Emily’s List, there are other programs, such as the Women’s Campaign Fund, that provide the necessary financial backing, but there still are not enough. More programs like this two incredibly important organizations need to exist, especially until women have obtained equal representation in government and politics.
Overall, by integrating agreed upon quotas within political parties in terms of candidacy and leadership, paired with the growth of more programs to provide women with the resources they need to run for offices, the U.S could move towards creating gender equality within politics.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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