We’re only two months into 2019, but it has already been a historic year for female representation within the United States government. Following the induction of a record number of women in Congress (102 in the House and 25 in the Senate), four female Congresswomen have announced their campaigns for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Arguably, the surprise that Hillary Clinton generated in the 2016 presidential election as the first woman to ever be a major political party’s nominee has become the norm. The road to equal representation in government has not been an easy one. Yet, the fact that more women than ever before are now running for and winning elected positions demonstrates just how far this country and society have come, and how much potential the future holds.
The path that now allows more women than ever to participate in the federal government was not an easy one to forge. Since the United States’s founding, numerous state and federal laws and legal interpretations have hindered women in politics. The largest issue that affected a woman’s chances of being elected to office was the right to vote. In 1777, all states passed laws that restricted women from voting. Following the end of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment defined “citizens” and “voters” as “males,” while the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote. Women, however, were noticeably excluded. Gender norms prevented women from being seen as anything but wives and mothers, and this systematic oppression made it that much harder for women to try and reach the glass ceiling.
Although there was no law preventing a woman from taking a national office if she were elected, not having the right to vote arguably illegitimized many of those who tried, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The women’s suffrage movement fought to extend voting rights to women; however, it can also be interpreted as a fight for equal representation in government positions. If not having the right to vote barred many women from being seen as legitimate candidates, winning the right was crucial. The first woman ever elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, easily won her seat in 1916, two years after women earned the vote in Montana. In 1920, after 72 years of fighting, the 19th Amendment enfranchised women. Since then, the number of women holding government offices has increased incrementally, only decreasing on a few occasions. With the vote, women were able to label themselves as serious candidates and win. This success almost certainly paved the way for the remarkable 127 women who serve in Congress today.
Female legislators bring a new dynamic to the country. Many studies have analyzed the social, political, and economic benefits of having more women in power. Their background in overcoming obstacles just to get to their position gives them the kind of experience they need in order to pass tougher bills. By passing, on average, twice as many bills as a male legislator does, female legislators are changing the focus of government and society’s view of political leaders. Politically, women are more compassionate, empathetic, and inclusive; for example, they tend to raise more policies related to women’s health, family leave, and domestic violence. In economics, women “typically invest a higher proportion of their earnings in their families and communities than men.” Most importantly, female legislators are actively shifting the balance in society. They are trending toward gender equality and changing the way people imagine how political candidates and leaders look. Around the world, women have already ascended to the highest office in many other countries. Angela Merkel (Germany), Theresa May (United Kingdom), and Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan) are just a few examples of international female leaders. In the United States and around the world, women leading the government are breaking apart the cultural norms that once barred them from even being able to vote.
From being systematically barred from voting to now creating history every day, women are breaking barriers in every area of society. They are empowering each other to make historic strides. It is no coincidence that the number of women entering Congress increases with every cycle. As the 2020 presidential election nears and the campaigns pick up, the historic number of women, their policies, and their campaigns will consistently be headlining stories. Arguably, women will become an important target group for candidates, especially with the role they played in helping Democrats recapture the House in the 2018 midterm elections. The present is promising, and the future will only provide more opportunities for women to progress.