The Road Ahead for Women

By Rebecca Now


What was life like for American women 100 years ago? Women couldn’t vote unless they lived in one of 11 states. College education was rare, and only a few colleges would admit women. Most professions were closed to women, and the ones that were open to women paid half of what a man made. Contraceptives were unreliable, if they could be found at all, so most likely life revolved around pregnancy and child rearing.


In 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 300 others rode their horse and buggies to the Wellesley Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY for the first Women’s Rights Convention, the status of women was decidedly unequal. By law, their wages belonged to their fathers or husbands. They could not inherit property. Children were exclusively the custody of fathers and women were denied access to higher education. Many professions were closed to them. It was not proper for women to speak in public. They had no right to vote. Laws of couverture were in effect, meaning that the husband covered his wife as a legal entity. A woman essentially had the legal status of a child, with the exception that she could be criminally charged, yet unable to serve on a jury, or speak on her own behalf in a court. Women have made enormous gains since then, in the realms of politics, education, economics, reproductive rights and family policy, but have such a long way to go in certain areas.


In the political realm, women won a hard fought, arduous, and long battle to gain the right to vote nationwide in 1920. From petitioning to civil disobedience, with endless referendum battles, lobbying efforts, parades, protests and jail time, the vote was finally granted to women. Over two million women were actively engaged in this movement, a rare moment of coming together over one issue which has not been seen since. After this great victory 98 years ago, nothing much changed. Women were not active voters immediately after the 19th Amendment passed, but now they are more likely to vote than men.


Women have been slow to serve in elected offices. Women before the 1960s were often appointed to congressional offices to fill a term of a deceased husband, until the advent of the trailblazers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schoeder, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and Olympia Snow. Then, in 1985, EMILY’s List pioneered in fundraising exclusively for women candidates, and Barbara Mikulski was elected to the Senate. The testimony by Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas judicial confirmation hearings in 1991, and her treatment by the all male Senate Judiciary committee, angered and galvanized women to run for office, and a new wave of women were sworn into office the following year. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female speaker of the house.


In January 2017, women were 19.4 % of the 115th congress, up from 2.8% in 1971. In state legislatures, the picture is a little brighter, with women holding 24.8% of the seats. Yes, there has been progress, but considering that women are 53% of the population, women have made slow, incremental movement, and have failed to achieve critical mass.


According to political science research, there appears to be an “ambition gap” for women running for office, and there is “gendered psyche” among eligible candidates. Women think they must be twice as good as a man to compete, women have lower estimates of their qualifications, hold themselves to a higher standard of qualifications to run, and women tend to doubt they can win if they run. Despite evidence that when women do run, they stand an equal chance with men of winning, women are less likely to become candidates in the first place. Women need to be encouraged to run, and have a supportive partner.


There is evidence that women are angered and galvanized by the 2016 presidential election loss of Hillary Clinton to an inexperienced man accused of sexual harassment. They are running for office in record numbers in the 2018 elections. Many organizations have sprung up to recruit, train, and fundraise for these women.


The political arena is where the action is to effect change in many other realms. In state legislatures, where women hold an average of 24.8% of seats, there are three states with 40% female office holders: Nevada, Vermont, and Arizona. State legislative seats will be vitally important in 2020, when the census is taken, and congressional district lines will be redrawn following shifts in population. If women want to make progress, the state legislatures are the place to start.


Women have certainly made long strides toward equality in the United States. It is in the political realm where the leverage is needed to make further changes in education, economics, fertility and family policies. It is clearly the area of concentration for future gains.

We have come a long way since 1848 on the road to equality, but the road ahead is just as important.


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