The United States held its first election in 1789, but it wasn't until 131 years later that women could actually participate in American democracy and legally cast their vote. The 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920, granted most women this right, but for women of color, the right to vote wasn't truly realized for another 45 years.
Now, more than a century after the passage of the 19th Amendment, women of various backgrounds are represented in nearly every sector of American politics, from the vice president's office to the halls of Congress to local and state legislatures across the country.
This representation matters. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made." When we have women in Congress and in state and local government, we benefit from their diverse perspectives and their understanding of the unique racial, social, and economic issues women face.
March is Women's History Month, which presents a great opportunity to reflect on how far women's empowerment has come — and how far our country still has to go to ensure true gender parity in government and true gender equity across society.
Pushing Women Forward: The Passage of the 19th Amendment
Though Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1920, it actually took more than 100 years to give women the legal right to vote. In the early 1800s, suffragists, women's voting rights advocates, and other activists launched a range of initiatives to push Congress to grant women this right. They picketed, staged protests, held silent vigils, and went on hunger strikes to bring more attention to their cause.
The 1948 Seneca Falls Convention put a national spotlight on the movement, helping it gain more prominence at the federal level. Other activities followed, including a three-year-long picket organized by the National Women's Party, which began in 1917. This 100-year movement put pressure on political leaders and ultimately led to the passage of the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919 and its ratification on August 18, 1920.
However, it's also important to acknowledge that the 19th Amendment didn't actually give all women the right to vote. Though women had the legal right to vote, women of color did not share in this privilege equally. Some states passed measures like poll taxes and literacy tests to make it more difficult for women of color to vote. In certain areas of the country, Black men and especially Black women were intimidated or physically threatened when they attempted to exercise their right to vote.
It wasn't until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that people of color were truly guaranteed this right. Still, in the wake of the 2020 elections, we have seen some states enacting measures that will disproportionately affect voting rights for people of color and may curtail some women's voting rights as well.
100 Years of Women's Empowerment in Politics
As the last 100 years shows, America's democracy is still a work in progress that is constantly evolving. However, there is cause to celebrate the progress we've made, especially when it comes to women's political advancement.
The most shining example of this is the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first Asian American to be elected to the office of the vice president in history. In the last two election cycles, more than half a dozen women have run for president, including Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Jo Jorgensen on the Libertarian party ticket, and most famously, Hillary Clinton.
While this number seems small compared to the hundreds of men who have run for president on both sides of the aisle, it indicates that America has evolved from not allowing women to vote to believing that women can run the country. And although no woman has ascended to the highest office in the country yet, it's more possible than ever that a woman will get there.
Both major parties have cultivated a growing pipeline of female leaders. After the 2018 mid-term elections, more women were elected to Congress than ever before in our nation's history. In 2019, women made up a quarter of the leadership in Congress, accounting for 144 of the 539 seats held in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This leadership includes Nancy Pelosi, who is serving her third term as Speaker of the House.
We're also seeing changes at the state and local levels in this regard. Several states currently have governors who are women, including Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and Kristi Noem of South Dakota.
In January 2020, the Boston City Council swore in its most diverse set of members to date. Women and people of color now make up more than half of the leadership, which includes Liz Breadon, the first openly gay woman to serve on the council, and City Councilor Kim Janey, who serves as president. Janey is only the third woman of color to serve as council president in the city's history.
Continuing to Challenge Gender Bias and Inequality
As we celebrate Women's History Month, it's important to remember that granting women the right to vote was only part of the ongoing movement to empower women in politics — and in society as a whole. Our country has made substantial progress, but there's still so much more work to do. For example, according to the Center for American Progress, women earn more than 59% of all master's degrees, 48% of all law degrees, and 47% of all medical degrees. Yet in a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions ranges from just 5% to 20%.
Taking inspiration from the fearless suffragists and other activists who fought for the 19th Amendment, we continue to challenge the idea that women don't belong in every level of our political, economic and social systems. Each generation of women leaders will continue to push the ball forward and hopefully bring us to the point where gender bias and inequality are relics of the past.
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