Let us mark the moment: After 240 years, America will this week anoint the first woman to head a major party’s presidential ticket when Hillary Clinton accepts the Democratic nomination.
Now the cold reality: It’s been a long, slow slog. In 1917, there was one female member of Congress. One hundred years later, there are 104 (out of 535 seats), with no growth spurt in sight.
“At this rate it will be another 300 years before women have parity in Congress,” says former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). “Man, are we behind.”
Indeed, women make up half the workforce and more than half of college students, but remain woefully underrepresented in elective office. In recent years, the numbers have either plateaued or risen only minimally.
Among the reasons: Old stereotypes die hard. Concerns persist that women are not tough enough on national security or the economy. And women are still often viewed through a lens of temperament and appearance. Supporters of Hillary Clinton were stunned when Donald Trump repeatedly assailed her for “shouting” at rallies. “I almost fell out of my chair,” said Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily’s List.
The nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studied the role of likability in weighing female and male candidates, found that it can make or break a woman running for office. “People will say, ‘I don’t just like her,’ ” said Adrienne Kimmell, the foundation’s executive director. “But likability does not impact electability for men. They are judged by experience and competence.”
The 2014 midterm elections brought an unprecedented number of women to Congress, but women still account for less than 20 percent of legislators in Washington. States hardly fare better. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) reports that women average barely 25 percent of members of state legislatures.
Schroeder was sure in 1984 that the floodgates would open when Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice-presidential candidate: “I thought the barrier was broken — but it never happened.”
Debbie Walsh, director of the CAWP at Rutgers University, believes that the good old boys’ network is still very much alive and unintentionally acts as a deterrent. “It becomes self-perpetuating,” Walsh said. “More men are elected and enter politics, and they tend to recruit candidates like themselves.”
Most troubling, Walsh says, is how this affects the pipeline. Women tend to ease into politics at the state level when encouraged. “Women start from a place where they don’t think that they’re qualified to run — and then we found that they were less likely to get encouragement.”
Malcolm has been on the front lines for 30 years and believes that women are inching forward. She points out that if Clinton is elected, a generation of middle-school and high school students will see an America where a female president is the norm.
In 1985, energized by Ferraro’s selection for a major-party ticket, Malcolm sought to create momentum. She didn’t think the Democrats had sufficiently taken advantage of the historical moment. In fact, a female Democratic senator had yet to be elected in her own right (without succeeding a dead husband). And a few years earlier, Arkansas lawyer Hillary Rodham felt compelled to assume her husband’s last name because keeping her maiden name contributed to his loss in his gubernatorial reelection race.
So Malcolm gathered some friends in her basement and founded Emily’s List to help recruit, fund and give voice to female candidates who supported abortion rights. Since that moment, the organization has helped elect more than 130 governors and U.S. House and Senate members, as well as 700 women to state legislatures.
“People didn’t even know what a female candidate looked like — never mind vote for one,” Malcolm says today. “They would get asked: ‘What does your husband think about you running? Who will do the laundry?’ We had to educate people. We had to change perceptions. If it was easy, we would have gotten here a long time ago.”
She was the first woman to be elected to Congress, an impressive achievement in 1916 considering women in most states didn’t have the right to vote yet (although they did in her home state, Montana). In the House, Rankin immediately took up the fight to secure passage of the 19th Amendment. “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she asked her colleagues during a floor debate. “How shall we explain . . . the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” A committed pacifist, she failed in her effort to win a Senate seat in 1918, in part because she had voted against U.S. entry into World War I. She was elected to the House again in 1940 and promptly voted against declaring war on Japan — the only member of Congress to do so. She did not seek reelection.
She was the first woman to be elected to the Senate and serve a full term. Like most women who landed in the Senate at the time, Caraway was initially appointed to finish out her late husband’s term. She shocked Arkansas power brokers in 1932 when she decided to run for reelection — despite a crowded field of men. “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job,” she said. It would be more than 40 years before a woman was elected to the Senate without having first arrived because of her husband’s death. That distinction belongs to Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican from Kansas, who was elected in 1978.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from Brooklyn, was the first black congresswoman (1968) — and the first African American to run for president on a major party ticket. Upon entering Congress, she was assigned to the Agriculture Committee, not exactly useful for Brooklyn. Feisty and fearless, she demanded to be reassigned. She was then assigned the Veterans Affairs Committee. “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” she noted. Her unsuccessful 1972 presidential quest generated much attention, and leaders in the women’s movement rallied behind her. She was the first woman to run as a Democrat. Throughout her career, Chisholm was a vocal advocate for the poor and the disenfranchised. Many say she paved for way for Barack Obama’s historic 2008 victory.
In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale selected her as his running mate, making her the first woman on a major party’s ticket. So anomalous was it to have a dual-gender ticket that advisers were unsure how the candidates should interact. They were cautioned not to even touch each other onstage. Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from Queens, was considered a bold yet desperate choice — an attempt by Democrats to take advantage of a “gender gap” to offset Ronald Reagan’s immense popularity. “If we can do this, we can do anything,” Ferraro thundered to the convention. Though she generated ample excitement, it didn’t translate into support. She was immediately put on the defensive about her qualifications and soon found herself mired in questions about her husband’s finances. The Democrats lost in a landslide. It would be a quarter-century before another woman was asked to join a major-party presidential ticket.
Schroeder, a well-regarded Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, seriously considered a run for president in 1988, generating much excitement. But she ultimately opted against it, because she couldn’t raise money or assemble an organization quickly enough. On the day she announced her decision, she choked up — and was criticized by women’s groups for showing emotion. A Harvard Law School graduate, Schroeder entered the House in 1973 after campaigning as an antiwar candidate. Asked by a male colleague how a mother of two small children could also serve in Congress, she famously quipped, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.” She was the first woman to win a seat on the House Armed Services Committee and rose to become one of its most powerful members. She retired from Congress in 1997 after 12 terms.
She was elected the first female speaker of the House in 2007, becoming the highest-ranking female politician in U.S. history to date. A wily strategist and tactician, Pelosi is credited with engineering her rise to speaker when she led the effort to take back the House after the 2004 elections, hiring outside marketers to fashion an anti-George W. Bush message and personally raising tens of millions of dollars. Pelosi grew up in a political family in Baltimore and became vactive in Democratic politics while raising five children in California. She was first elected to the House at 47, after her children were grown. At 76, and currently the House minority leader, she hasn’t evidenced any hint of slowing down.
Palin became the second female vice-presidential nominee from a major party — and the first Republican — when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) tapped her to be his running mate in 2008. It was a rough ride. Despite enormous excitement among conservatives when the first-term Alaska governor was named, voters eventually came to see her as unqualified. In addition, her eventful family drama, played out in public, became a running joke. After a damaging interview with Katie Couric, then with CBS News, Palin’s popularity plummeted, and many Republicans thought she was a drag on the ticket. Palin has maintained a strong following among conservatives and a voice on the national stage.
In 1992 she became the first African American woman elected to the Senate. A Democrat, she captured national attention in 1993 when she and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland wore pants on the Senate floor in defiance of an arcane Senate rule prohibiting women from doing so. The rule was soon changed. Moseley Braun started her career as a prosecutor and was a legislator in the Illinois state House. Defeated in her reelection bid, she spent only one term in the Senate. After serving as ambassador to New Zealand, Moseley Braun decided to run for president in 2004. She dropped out of the race after the first primary.
Clarification: Rep. Shirley Chisholm was inadvertently omitted from an earlier version of this article.