Tuesday, August 18, 2020

One Aim for the Next 100 Years of the 19th Amendment: More Women in All Levels of Public Office

Linda McClain

August 26th 2020, Women’s Equality Day, will mark the 100th anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the Amendment. Today, Virginia Sapiro (BU, Department of Political Science) and I published this column in BU Today’s Point of View, arguing that, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, a critical priority before we mark the next significant anniversary should be increasing political representation by women—particularly women of color—at all levels of office.  Here are a few points we make in our longer essay. First, there is a difference between saying that the right to vote could “not be denied or abridged on account of sex” and saying that women had the right to vote. The 19th Amendment did not eliminate other barriers women faced, like Jim Crow laws, literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, felon restrictions, and a variety of other types of voter suppression. Even so, the 19th Amendment marked the first time a constitutional principle of gender equality became a part of the US Constitution, limited though that principle was.  It provided a constitutional basis for gaining a right that thousands of women (and some men) had dreamed of, worked for,  and gave their health and lives for over the course of 80 years.

 Second, the women (and men) who participated in the woman suffrage movement included people from every region of the country; people of all races, classes, and religions; wealthy women and poor women; recent immigrants and people whose families had settled more than a century earlier. Some suffrage movement allies thought the vote was the most important thing. Some saw it as an instrument to help achieve other desired ends relating to securing women’s full and equal citizenship.

 Third, the history of the woman suffrage movement and its internal workings also reflect the  larger forces of the society in which it was embedded: racism, ethnocentrism, class conflict, sectionalism, political party antagonisms, and political opportunism. Understanding this knotty and often contradictory history does not detract from the achievements. It means, rather, that the history of the conflicts, struggles, progress, and loss that led to the 19th Amendment is a great lens through which to study the realities of American aspirations for democracy.

 Fourth, this amazing story – and women’s history generally, especially in its nuanced and complicated version accounting for a truly intersectional understanding of women’s experiences – is remarkably little known. It is not yet integrated into basic university-level curricula on American history. Students in our gender and politics classes are shocked when they find out what they have been missing in their earlier education.

 Fifth, and finally, our American democracy, however, does not yet reflect gender equality in the arena of holding positions of power and elected office. On the one hand, the 2018 elections brought in an encouragingly diverse group of women at all levels of public office, including Congress. On the other hand, women are still underrepresented, relative to their percentage of the population, as mayors, state legislators, and governors.  In Congress, they hold 23 percent of seats in the House of Representatives and 26 percent of Senate seats. For women of color, these percentages are even lower in most categories.   And, of course, no woman has ever been President or Vice President of the United States.

The United States does not compare well to other countries in this regard: 59 countries have had a woman head of government. In the world rankings of women as a percentage of the lower house of the national legislature (like our House of Representatives), the United States ranks 76th.  That low score is better than before the 2018 elections, when we ranked 100th.   

 As the Democratic presidential primaries began with a record number of women as candidates, there was hope that the highest glass ceiling would be broken. That did not happen. Moreover, throughout the process, repeated questions about whether female candidates are “electable” or “too ambitious” have demonstrated the continuing hold of gender stereotypes about political leadership. Such stereotypes evidently played a role in the vetting process of the many women under consideration to be Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s vice president. Biden’s selection of  Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential choice is historic: while she is the third woman to be selected as a running mate, she is the first Black woman and the first Asian American. Perhaps the glass ceiling as to the vice presidency will be broken this November; if so, it could signal actual movement on social norms about who is “electable.”  Such movement would be a tangible step toward the type of progress needed to realize the full promise of the 19th Amendment. 

The unfinished business of gender equality in political representation is one of the many issues that Gina and I -- along with legal scholars, political scientists, and political practitioners—will be exploring next month, on September 25, in a Zoom webinar sponsored by Boston University, The Centenary of the 19th Amendment: New Reflections on the History and Future of Gender, Representation, and Citizenship Rights (advance registration is required). We look forward to continuing conversation about this significant anniversary.

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