Women in Politics and American Society: A Tale of Two Firsts

You may have seen this article in The Huffington Post, but in case not and because I’m so proud of it, I had to republish it here.

Victoria and Hillary

When we think of women in politics, their inclusion in places of power seems to be a recent occurrence, but women have been raising their voices since the 1840s in support of women’s suffrage. For some, this led to running for office even before their fellow women could vote for them. In 1870, less than a decade after the Civil War ended and 50 years before women would be granted the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull announced she was running for president in the 1872 election, a move never before attempted by a female in the United States. In 2016, we have our first female running for president on a major party ticket in Hillary Clinton. Let’s take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in those 146 years.

1872: Women didn’t mettle in business or political affairs. It was unthinkable for a woman to vote, much less run for office. As anti-suffragist Catharine Beecher once wrote, “the Holy Scripture indicates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life because as women they find a full measure of duties, care and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization.”

Victoria Woodhull set out to prove this mindset was flawed. She and her sister Tennie opened the first stock brokerage on Wall Street owned and operated by women and were successful at it. Women weren’t allowed at the New York Stock Exchange, but Victoria found a way around that, relaying her business transactions through men, and making millions of dollars.

2016: Women are regularly leaders in companies and are elected to office, but not on par with men. We have a long way to go before we see equal representation. While 46.8% of the total labor force in the United States is female and women hold 51.5% of management and professional positions, women currently hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and only 19.2% of all board seats at those companies. (See Catalyst.org for more.)

According to Rutgers University, “in 2015, 104 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) served in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) served in the United States House of Representatives. Four women delegates (3D, 1R) also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands in the United States House of Representatives.” The Nation estimates that “at the current rate of progress, it will take nearly 500 years for women to reach fair representation in government.” More optimistic researchers have estimated “it will be 2121 before women reach gender parity in Congress…and [the estimate for when we’ll reach] pay equity is like 2058.”

***

1872: Women weren’t supposed to run for office. In the nineteenth century it was not even considered proper for a woman to speak in public because it was believed by doing so, she drew shame upon her father/husband, much less run for elected office.

That didn’t stop suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria Woodhull joined them in speaking out for that right, but she also vehemently supported workers’ rights, the humane treatment of prostitutes, and the rights of women to not be sexually subservient to their husbands within marriage. From 1871 on, Victoria was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit along with famous women like Anna Dickinson, traveling around the country to speak her controversial ideas. Victoria took the idea one step further by running for the highest one in the land in 1872. That same year, her sister Tennie ran for Congress as part of a small district in New York. Neither woman won, but they set a precedent thousands later followed.

2016: Women can run for office, but are still discriminated against. In the 21st century, the “woman card” shouldn’t even exist – all candidates for office should be evaluated by voters (and other candidates) based on their experience, platform and positions. Yet, as Mr. Trump’s now-famous quote shows, women are treated differently when they run, though not in the way he seems to have implied with his statement. The media are more likely to talk about a female candidates’ appearance, specifically her hair and clothing, than a man’s (the exception may be Mr. Trump’s hair.) While some argue that bias is all in our heads, nearly three in four of the women interviewed as part of a report recently released by Political Parity said they had felt discriminated against in politics. (See also Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in US Politics for additional reasons why women may feel discriminated against.)

According the Political Parity report, women often lack funding and support from their political parties. “Two-thirds of women say it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat.” They have the confidence and ability to ask for it, but having the network to ask is a roadblock. Could this be the remnants of the “old boys club” in politics? While the report doesn’t say, it stands to reason.

***

1872: Women did not have the right to vote. Even though women had been campaigning for suffrage since the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and the Nineteenth Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1878, it wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920. Even then, it took 12 states (not counting Alaska and Hawaii) anywhere from another month to 64 years to ratify it. (Mississippi was last, finally ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment on March 22, 1984). In some Southern states, African American women were harassed, attacked and in other ways prevented from voting into the 1960s. On August 6, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed into law, finally allowing all women, regardless of race, to vote as full citizens.

2016: Women have the right to vote. Victory! According to VoteRunLead, 53% of voters in the 2012 election were women.

***

1872: The media attacks female candidates by calling them names and digging into their personal lives. Newspapers analyzed every move political candidates made, including, in the case of Victoria and Tennie, their clothing, bearing, family lineage and suitability as public figures. Just as today, the candidates attacked one another in the papers and were in turn attacked by them. When Victoria’s mother, Anne, sued Victoria’s husband in 1871, the newspapers lapped up every dirty secret that came out in court, often blowing them out of proportion. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon dubbing Victoria as “Mrs. Satan” because she urged women to fight back against sexual slavery and mistreatment within marriage.

2016: The attacks have moved to TV and the internet. Since the 1990s, we’ve watched the media dig into Hillary Clinton’s personal life, even going so far as to attack the then-teenaged Chelsea Clinton, which prompted Hillary to ask the press not to cover her daughter. Of course, throughout her husband’s sex scandals, Mrs. Clinton’s every move and word was chronicled and her motivations and thoughts speculated on in both mainstream media and tabloids. In this most recent campaign, Donald Trump has dubbed Hillary as “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary,” because she came out in favor of gun control and because she was attacking him in ads.

This is a long way of showing that while women made some great strides in some areas of politics and society, in others, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Perhaps that will change over time naturally as more women run for office and attain power. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton wins the November election and becomes our nation’s first female presidential candidate, it will happen more rapidly. But as a female, I find it sad that our advances haven’t been greater in a century and a half. But then again, that gives my generation something else to fight for. Maybe someday our daughters and nieces will be asking us why such issues ever existed.

What are your thoughts? How do you see things having changed or not changed? What change do think is most pressing? 

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