A Walk Down Memory Lane: Women in U.S. Politics
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
By: Himani Pangal
Regardless of your political views, there was at least one universal celebration in the wake of the 2020 election. Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman and first person of color to be elected Vice President of the United States of America. This historic victory has facilitated discussions about female representation in U.S politics, and acknowledges the centuries long struggle that permitted a woman of color to reach this very honor. As a South Asian woman myself, I find Kamala Harris' election a victory for all young women out there who aspire to work in politics, and for those who dream of reaching places that the women before them were told they could not.
The Early Days
Riding on the momentum from the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared that she would run for the U.S House of Representative in 1866. Despite not even being legally allowed to vote, Stanton embarked on this political journey at a young age; Stanton only received 24 votes out of the 12,000 casted, but these 24 votes set a precedent for empowering women to break through the glass-ceilings of politics.
It took around another half century until the U.S. saw Jeannette Rankin become the first woman ever elected to Congress, even before the 19th amendment ensured a (white) woman’s right to vote. Rankin was elected to the U.S House of Representatives as a progressive Republican from Montana in 1916. She was a robust feminist, to say the least, continuously pushing for social reform.
In 1920, white women won the right to vote after suffragists fought a decades long struggle. The following decades saw white women trickling into Congress, state and federal level judiciaries, and other state-level elected positions. But it wasn't until 1962 that the United States saw a minority woman elected to a political position; Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first Asian Pacific Islander woman elected to a state legislature in Hawaii.
End of 20th Century
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She relentlessly advocated for women's issues and marginalized communities. Chisholm was no doubt a pioneering female politician, as she co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971. Not only was she a powerhouse in Congress, but her political agenda also progressed further when she became the first African-American woman to run for president on a major party ticket in 1972.
The last few decades of the 20th century saw an increase in women's participation in political realms. In 1981, Ronald Regan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court; she would be the first woman to ever serve in the highest court in the land. And in 1985, Wilma Mankiller was elected the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Despite these impressive firsts, there was still much more progress to be made.
"Year of the Woman" to Today
In 1991, the country watched as attorney Anita Hill testified against Justice Clarence Thomas on the basis of sexual assault during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Following Hill's courageous act that brought national attention to the sexual harassment epidemic, a historic election ensued; in the 1992 midterms, more women than ever ran for congressional seats, famously coining this election the "Year of the Woman". 27 years later, the country experienced a sick déjà vu when professor Chrisine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh under the same allegations. And in the 2018 midterm elections following the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the American people elected its most diverse congressional class in history, including a record number of women representatives.
The Struggle Continues
Today, we still see women of all backgrounds fighting their way through a white man’s world. Through her historical 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton inspired a new generation of women to get out and vote. However, the process has still been muted. In 2020, women comprised only 23.6% of the U.S Congress -- 25% serve in the Senate and 23.2% in the U.S House of Representatives-- despite women making up 50% of the U.S. population.
Are these numbers better than it was 20 years ago? Yes. But should it stop there? Absolutely not. 41.7% of the Nordic region (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland) legislators are women. Rwanda remains the only country in the world with a majority of women in parliament. Thus, the greatest democracy in the world has some work to do.
Now, all of this is great... But why should you care? Our government must better represent the diversity of the United States, as diversity is a hallmark of our country’s melting-pot identity. The decisions made in Congress affect your mother, your sister, your grandmother. It is 2020 and women are still not the majority making decisions about their own bodies. We are not in the 1960s anymore.
Kamala Harris' victory foreshadows a future of a more representative U.S. government. However, let us not forget the volume of work that still needs to be done in securing a future of more women in politics.