Women in US Politics: Looking back to look ahead

On November 5, Democrats took control of the House and the Senate in Virginia, a significant victory for the party that hasn’t controlled the state legislature in over twenty years. While their newfound dominance in the state spells good news for local progressives, at a national level, it also means that the Equal Rights Amendment could become law after almost thirty years dormant.

The Equal Rights Amendment, or the ERA, was first introduced in 1923 by Alice Paul, a Massachusetts suffragist known for her efforts to pass the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution giving women the right to vote. The ERA stated that gender could not be used to deny due process or equal rights under the law, and while it initially gained bipartisan support and the ratification of 22 states, it quickly began to face growing opposition. After losing steam over the course of the 20th century, it has again gained support following its ratification in Nevada in 2017 and in Illinois in 2018.

Now, with Democrats firmly in control of the Virginia state legislature, the ERA seems to finally be on the cusp of securing the 38-state-support it needs to become law. Yet despite not having equal rights under the law to this day, women in the US have played a key role in politics as far back as the abolitionist movement.

Women and the Abolitionist Movement

By the 1820s, most states had expanded voting rights to include all white men, and the exclusion of all other individuals sparked reform movements across the United States. These reform groups included temperance leagues, religious movements, moral-reform societies, and anti-slavery organizations. Many American women – frustrated with the idea of themselves as pious, submissive wives and mothers whose only jobs were in the family home – began to play a significant role in these later groups in particular. 

In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison joined with Quaker Lucretia Mott and other abolitionists to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1840, the organization had split into three, divided mostly over the issue of women’s leadership. Radical abolitionists, known as “Garrisonian” abolitionists, remained allied with suffragists, while the other two branches restricted membership to males or limited women’s participation to fundraising.

Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton then found themselves banned from the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London due to their gender, inspiring them to hold a Women’s Convention in the US and to shift their focus from abolition to women’s rights.[i] In 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, inviting abolitionist activists—male and female—to discuss the future of the American woman. Their consensus was unanimous: that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[ii]

In the years following the Seneca Falls Convention, the women’s rights movement gained support. In 1849, California became the first state to extend property rights to women in the state constitution. The following year, Massachusetts became the site of the first National Women’s Rights Convention. In attendance were prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, as well as suffragists such as Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth. The Convention resulted in an alliance between abolitionists and suffragists, the latter of whom gained political skills through their involvement in the abolitionist movement.

Suffrage After the Civil War

At the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, extending equal protection and due process to all male citizens and guaranteeing black men the right to vote. Seeing an opportunity to further the cause of women’s enfranchisement, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association to fight for a universal suffrage amendment to the US Constitution. A separate faction of the group formed the American Women’s Suffrage Association in protest, claiming that linking black enfranchisement and women’s suffrage endangered newly won voting rights for black men.

Suffragists faced other opposition to women gaining the right to vote. Some said that women had no desire to vote, while others claimed that women would be far too busy tending to the home and family to track political issues. Still others argued that doubling the electorate with women would increase costs with little payoff. Interestingly, temperance advocates were one of the most vocal organizations opposing women’s suffrage; they feared that women’s votes would cause their movement to lose support.

Eventually, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Stanton became the group’s first president. By then, the focus of suffragists had changed. While the movement originally argued that women deserved voting rights because they were the same as men, the new argument was that women voting would help increase national morality and purity, shaping the country into a “maternal commonwealth.” This argument helped win over temperance advocates and middle-class white voters concerned with preventing the tainting of the white race.[iii]

1878 saw the proposal of a Woman Suffrage Amendment in Congress, but in 1887, the amendment was defeated in its first ever vote.

Progressive Activism and Winning the Vote

As part of the Progressive Era beginning in the 1890s, women entered more spheres of public life. Beyond advocating for their own rights, women began to lead reform movements to end public corruption and increase government intervention for the benefit of its citizens. Suffragists like Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells-Barnett fought for immigrants and African Americans; Addams established Chicago’s Hull-House to educate and support immigrants, while Wells-Barnett campaigned vocally against lynching.

The broad consequence of women’s expanded role outside the home was the acceptance of women’s political activism. As a result, women’s issues—and especially women’s suffrage—became a debate in mainstream politics. Slowly, state legislatures followed the lead given by the then-territory of Wyoming and Utah (in 1869 and 1870, respectively) and began giving women the right to vote. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party became the first major political party to support woman suffrage. By 1913, the territories of Washington, Montana, and Alaska had granted women full voting rights, along with the states of Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

In 1917, Alice Paul led her famous picketing campaign in front of the White House. Suffragists from all over the country held banners pushing President Woodrow Wilson to grant women the right to vote. Alice Paul herself was arrested and put in solitary confinement to undermine her credibility and break her commitment to the cause. Regardless, the cause persisted and in 1918, Wilson announced his support for a federal suffrage movement. In 1919, the Senate passed the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on August 26, 1920; white American women could vote fully and freely for the first time. Women of racial minorities however did not secure the right to vote until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

Voter Suppression Efforts Against Women

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25 states have enacted new voting restrictions since 2010.[iv] Though all women officially won the right to vote more than fifty years ago, they are particularly at risk of these new laws preventing them from casting a ballot.

Due to voter ID laws, for example, the National Organization of Women estimates that 34% of women are at risk of being turned away from the ballot box on account of lacking proper documents.[v] Often, this is purely administrative: since 90% of women change their names after marriage, their new names frequently do not match their identification documents[vi] – precluding their ability to vote.

Restricted voting times – which have been instituted in six states since 2010 – also disproportionately affect women. Women are 35% more likely to be poor in the US than men, with single mothers facing the highest risk.[vii] Between childcare responsibilities and the inability to take time off of work (especially in hourly-paid jobs), women often bear the burden of such voter restrictions.

Importance of the ERA and the Next Steps for Women in Politics    

As the Equal Rights Amendment seems poised for a long overdue passage into US law, it’s worth noting that 76% of constitutions around the world already guarantee women’s equality in some way. The US Constitution, technically, does not.

The absence of such a clause goes far beyond semantics. The Equal Rights Amendment would require states to intervene on issues like sexual harassment and domestic violence. It would require the government to fight pregnancy discrimination, guarantee paid maternity and paternity leave, and mandate equal pay in every industry. It would pave the way for the formal, Constitutional protection of LGBTQ rights, and it would eliminate medical discrimination against women seeking any form of reproductive care.

Beyond prompting such-wide scale change, it would also serve as a symbol that the United States is finally ready to consider women’s issues on an equal plane as other concerns—a commitment that politicians, via their silence, have yet to make. That commitment would encourage more women to run for office and, once elected, advocate for progressive issues affecting all women. In a country claiming to be the land of the free, there is nothing more fundamental than women’s equality in politics.

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[i] https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage

[ii] https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage

[iii] https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage

[iv] https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/new-voting-restrictions-america

[v] https://www.salon.com/2018/01/13/the-surprising-ways-voter-suppression-particularly-hurts-women_partner/

[vi] ibid

[vii] https://www.legalmomentum.org/women-and-poverty-america