The Rise of Women in American Politics

Women in the United States gained the right to vote in 1920—after more than six decades of demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and appeals to Congress by educated, upper-class women who demanded a voice and roles in politics.

Since then, progress for American women in politics has been equally slow.

Women have gained behind-the-scenes influence in groups like the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization promoting voter rights and women’s issues, that was founded only six months before the Suffrage Movement succeeded in getting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. But in terms of gaining tangible political power—not so much.

The first woman was elected to Congress in 1917, a Montana Republican named Jeannette Rankin. In the decades following, only an extremely small number of women have been represented in Congress. The women’s rights movement of the 1970s encouraged more women to run for office, but few were successful until recently.

Since 2000, more numbers of women have been elected to Congress and appointed to key political positions than in any other time in history. This is due in part to greater turnout by women at the polls—their numbers surpassed men’s in 2010. The major parties see women candidates as a means to reach them. The two main parties are encouraging women to run for local and state offices by recruiting them and grooming them with campaign training programs. In the Democratic Party, the group Emerge American trains women in 17 states and EMILY’S List provides training and campaign funding. In the Republican Party, the National Federation of Republican Women trains candidates.

Also, nonpartisan programs have helped women to run, like one by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, which has been directly responsible for successful campaigns by women from both parties and an Independent.

This has led to an exponential growth of women represented at all levels of government, since women in key roles tend to hire and promote women for powerful roles at much greater numbers than men.

Due to these changes, not only are women gaining political clout, it is likely that a woman will be elected as president in the near future, shattering the penultimate glass ceiling in politics.

In 2015, Congress had its largest female representation in history, with 84 women in the House and 20 in the Senate—which is still only 19.4 percent of all current seats. To give that perspective, of the 313 women who have served in Congress during its entire history, 104 are current members. In total, 278 have served in the house and 46 in the Senate—and only 11 women have served in both houses.

Other powerful positions held by women in recent history include the current three Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and the first, Sandra Day O’Connor. Women have served as Secretary of State, U.N. Ambassador, House Speaker, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Homeland Security and, in the distant past, Secretary of Labor. Other key positions are Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Still, without more women running for political office, America will take 500 years to reach “fair representation” in government, according to an article in The Nation, a progressive political magazine. Globally, the United States ranks 98th for percentage of women serving as national lawmakers.

Key Women in Political History

Thanks to the women who worked for decades to either secure the vote for their gender, or to become part of the political process, progress continues. These are the women who had the most influence in the early years.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Along with female Quakers, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which established the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a kind of Declaration of Independence for American women asserting that women should be able to vote, among other rights, such as the ability to own property and to divorce.

Susan B. Anthony:  A Quaker and political activist who conducted the largest petition drive of her time, collecting 400,000 signatures for abolishing slavery in 1863, Anthony was best known as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Her imprint in history includes publishing a women’s rights newspaper called “The Revolution” and co-authoring with Stanton the six-volume book series “History of Woman Suffrage.” She was the first real woman (not a symbol) depicted on U.S. currency in 1979 on the dollar coin.

Victoria Woodhull: She was the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872 on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, which she established. Her platform was women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, 8-hour workdays, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor. Votes for her were never counted. She and her sister Tennessee also were the first women stockbrokers, and opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street in 1870. She also published a weekly newspaper, and a scandalous article exposing Preacher/Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterous hypocrite and a Wall Street trader for seducing young women landed her and her sister in jail for sending “obscene material” through the mail. They were later acquitted, but were behind bars during Woodhull’s election bid.

Carrie Chapman Catt: She was the only woman in her class when she earned a general science degree in 1880, she became San Francisco’s first female newspaper reporter when she had to work after her husband’s death in 1885 and in 1900, she succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the NASW. Her campaigning is credited with winning over President Woodrow Wilson to support the 19th Amendment. Friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she promoted women’s rights worldwide and founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to gain the vote in other countries. As a leader in the world peace movement, the League played a role in establishing the League of Nations and the United Nations.