Current returns suggest that women will add seats in Congress, especially Republican women, who are on track to surpass their previous high of 25 seats across both chambers in 2004. With results still unclear, it appears that Congress will inch up from 23.7 percent women to somewhere between 24.5 and 27 percent.
Women may also make an enormously significant gain by moving into executive power: After the votes are counted, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) could be one heartbeat away from breaking what 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” Harris’s selection as the vice-presidential nominee is particularly significant because many women of color were systematically disenfranchised for decades after the 19th Amendment — and still, today, they can face steep obstacles to casting ballots and especially winning office.
But the mere fact that we continue to mark so many “firsts” for women in politics tells us that the playing field with men remains uneven. When the nonpartisan National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) was formed in 1971 to recruit and elect more women, its founders predicted that by 2020, we would see 50-50 gender representation in Congress. We have fallen well short of this optimistic projection, revealing that voters still have difficulty imagining women in office.
American democracy was founded as a patriarchal state — built by and for White men of economic means — and the consequences are felt today.
White male property owners historically faced the fewest hurdles to vote and run for public office. The most elite White women were charged with the patriotic, but unequal, task of being republican mothers who raised sons to be the next generation of American leaders, while serving as moral guardians of the home. Poor White women, the enslaved and those not considered White were not even cast in this lesser civic role.
Discontented with their limited opportunity, six working-class women from New York petitioned the state’s 1846 constitutional convention to extend their political rights. Eleanor Vincent, Susan and Amy Ormsby, Lydia Williams, Anna Bishop and Lydia Osborn took this body to task for denying women suffrage and “any participation in forming the government and laws under which they live.”
Their call for full political citizenship drew a direct link between voting power and political power. Two years later, attendees at the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. — often credited for launching the suffrage movement — echoed this argument.
By the late 19th century, a broad women’s rights agenda had narrowed to focusing on suffrage, in part because voting was seen as a means to achieve true equality with men. Selling suffrage as a democratic wartime measure during World War I provided the final momentum needed to compel just enough legislators to achieve ratification of the 19th Amendment by one vote.
Yet, the face of political power remained White and male, and politicians were in no rush to yield to women. As a result, women’s political engagement was impeded along two separate tracks.
First, women faced a color line that made the 19th Amendment a hollow promise for many who could not overcome race- and class-based disenfranchisement tactics such as literacy tests, poll taxes and persistent threats of physical violence. While women of color initially voted in the thousands in 1920, access to voting proved to be inconsistent and hard fought.
Second, although White women enjoyed much freer voting rights, the next decades made clear how the ballot did not easily translate to office. Political influence was narrowly limited to women who adhered to a “special role” — one that kept with the tradition of republican motherhood — advocacy on behalf of women, children and family.
This meant that White women’s best shot at office, as one reporter noted in 1925, was “a dead husband.” More than half of the women who served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the first two decades after 1920 were widows of men who had held office.
The 1960s proved a turning point for women in politics — one embodied by the 1964 election of Rep. Patsy T. Mink (D-Hawaii), a Japanese American lawyer from Maui who proudly delivered a “yes” vote for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Mink went on to draft Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in educational programs and opened up high school and collegiate sports to women. As the first woman of color in Congress, her presence reflected their persistent organizing not only to exercise the vote, but also to remake the U.S. landscape.
During the 1960s, women inhabited the rank-and-file of every social movement, left or right: civil rights, peace, environmentalism, anti-poverty and massive resistance to integration. Within these quarters, they exhibited adept political acumen and increasingly demanded leadership recognition.
The push for justice and equality carried over to a bipartisan call for more gender equality in politics in the 1970s, one that produced gains. A record-setting five women of diverse backgrounds — Reps. Yvonne Burke (D-Calif.), Marjorie Holt (R-Md.), Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) and Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) — won seats in Congress in 1972. State legislatures shifted faster, with the number of women in office increasing by 50 percent between 1972 and 1974. Even so, the 1970s — a decade when pundits predicted during each campaign season that it might just be a year of the woman — actually closed with fewer women in Congress than there had been in 1960.
Feminists may have successfully pressured for groundbreaking legislation to benefit women in the early 1970s, but they had not fundamentally changed the political culture. Male politicians paid lip service to women’s rights during their campaigns, with many trying to tap into the emerging “gender gap” that could boost Democrats. But while women’s votes grew in importance, that did not translate to a widespread effort to recruit and support more women as candidates. Feminists also underestimated the growing women-led opposition to their agenda that would coalesce by the 1980s as the politics of “family values.”
It was not until 1992 when the year of the woman actually took place, with major gains in congressional representation a year after senators on the all-White and male Judiciary Committee belittled Anita Hill on live television in 1991. Even at this historic crossroad, the number of women in Congress increased by only 4 percent.
After further fits and starts, in the late 2010s women finally seem to be making irreversible advancements. Hillary Clinton’s defeat by the far less qualified Donald Trump inspired more women to enter the fray, and they have worked to channel energy from the 2017 Women’s March and social movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter into political contests.
Using social media to reach deeper into the grass roots than groups like the NWPC and Emily’s List did in the past, women launched efforts such as Pantsuit Nation, She Should Run and Raising Our Sisters’ Assets (ROSA PAC). These groups crucially helped organize voters (including in the suburbs, where they focused on married White women), fundraise and support women running for offices from the local school board to the U.S. Senate.
Women in politics contend with a persistently misogynistic political culture that has been a formidable barrier for too long. John L. Carman, a New Jersey politician, for example, publicly mocked the 2017 Women’s March, asking, “Will the women’s protest end in time for them to cook dinner?” A sign of progress: This sexist quip motivated 32-year-old Ashley Bennett to challenge Carman, and she won his seat on the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2018.
Women’s recent inroads formed the backdrop to Tuesday’s election results — including the realization by Republicans that they needed to recruit more female candidates if they wanted to score gains. But without persistent agitation and a national reckoning over our democracy’s patriarchal roots, we will not achieve gender parity in politics or change the gendered culture and architecture of our democracy.
As more diverse women run for and enter office, they can further shift our limited perception of political leadership. Their example will help voters and politicians reconceive what politicians should look like and how they should behave, which is the key to finally achieving equal representation in government at every level.