In 1992, voters elected more women to Congress than ever before in the nation's history. Twenty-four new congresswomen (21 Democrats and three Republicans) joined 23 other women who won re-election to the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Barbara Boxer (D-California), and Patty Murray (D-Washington) were all elected to a first term. They joined Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Maryland) who was elected to a second term and Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas). For many the victory of these female candidates represented the American peoples' desire to end gridlock and politics as usual.
After the election, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority, declared that, "This is the first significant breakthrough for women in the history of Congress; we're cracking the political glass ceiling." Others were more cautious, pointing out that women still had a long way to go to be truly represented.
Indeed, women continue to be severly underrepresented in Congress. Although women make up over 50 percent of the population, they currently hold only about 13 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives and nine percent of the seats in the Senate. In other words, only 65 of the 535 members of Congress are women. In state legislatures, women hold 22 percent of the seats. Since the first Congress, women have made up only 1 percent of the more than 11,000 representatives and senators who have served. Female senators have been so rare that, until 1992, there was no women's restroom in the Senate chamber.
Despite their severe underrepresentation in Congress, women have enthusiastically cast ballots since the 19th Amendment gave them suffrage —the right to vote. Women turn out to vote at a higher rate than their male counterparts. They constitute more than half of all American voters. Why then, after over 70 years of women's suffrage, do women hold so few seats in Congress? Could more female legislators change the way the country is run?
A Legacy that Lingers: "The Door Locked Tight"
Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, some people hoped that women might successfully run for public office and bring about significant changes in society. Female legislators might, they believed, end corruption in government, abolish poverty, and see to it that the United States avoided war. However, Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement, accurately predicted that getting the vote would not guarantee women access to the nation's legislatures. "You will see the . . . door locked tight," she said. "You will have a hard fight before you get inside." From 1920 to the 1970s, women rarely ran for public office and were almost never elected.
Most of the women who did venture into politics during this time tended to defer to their male counterparts. Hattie Caraway from Arkansas took over her husband's U.S. Senate seat when he died in 1931. Re-elected two times on her own, "Silent Hattie" once said, "I haven't the heart to take a minute away from the men."
Women who tried to run for office also discovered that both the Democratic and Republican parties discouraged the nomination of female candidates. Women interested in politics often ended up working as local party volunteers. Women who attempted to seek office had great difficulty raising campaign funds, especially when running against male incumbents.
Before 1950, fewer than a dozen women held seats in Congress at any one time. By 1961, there were still only 17 women in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. However, as more women graduated from high school, went to college, and entered the labor force, their role in politics increased.
During the 1960s, many women joined the civil-rights , anti-war, and student-protest movements. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed with the intention of bringing women "into full participation in the mainstream of American society now."
Heartened by their involvement in the social movements of the 1960s, increasing numbers of women sought political office, particularly at the local and state levels. The efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) stimulated other women to enter electoral politics. Nevertheless, the struggle to ratify the ERA continues today.
In 1984, the Democratic Party nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president of the United States. As the first female vice-presidential nominee for a major party, Ferraro gave women in politics a big boost. (Ferraro and her Democratic Party running-mate, Walter Mondale, were later defeated by Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In the meantime, more women entered local and state electoral races, giving them valuable campaign experience.
Then in 1991 came the nationally televised Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Anita Hill, a professor and former employee of Thomas, testified that he had sexually harassed her. Many Americans were offended by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee's response to Anita Hill's testimony. They called for more women in Congress.
By 1992, many seasoned female politicians were ready for the "Year of the Woman." Their success at the polls reflected the willingness of many voters to contribute money to women's campaigns and vote for them on election day.
Today, there are 65 women in Congress, a record high. Even so, men continue to dominate the legislature by a ratio of nearly 10 to 1.
The Gender Gap
For many years, men and women exhibited few differences in their voting or political party preference. In recent years, however, evidence suggests that women lean toward the Democratic Party while men have tended to vote Republican. This difference has been referred to as a so-called "gender gap."
The gender gap may also indicate that female voters increasingly see the need to elect more women to public office. Shortly after the 1992 election, a Newsweek poll asked women if they thought men in the United States understand the issues that affect women. A solid 68 percent responded no. Former House member Pat Schroeder(D-Colorado) complained that, "Women's issues aren't considered important [by male legislators]. You're supposed to put them aside, not embarrass your colleagues, get with the program." Another poll, reported in U.S. News & World Report, revealed that 80 percent of women under 30 believe the nation would be better governed if more women held public office.
In the 1992 election, almost all women elected to House and Senate seats owed their victories to a disproportionate number of female voters.
A "Critical Mass"
Feminist leader Eleanor Smeal contends that once women hold a third of all Congressional seats, they will form a "critical mass" that will enable them and their male allies to pass laws that address women's issues. According to this viewpoint, the male-dominated Congress historically has ignored issues of specific interest to women, such as gender-based discrimination in the classroom and in the workplace, rape, domestic violence, and the lack of child-care. But, with a "critical mass" of women in Congress, the issues traditionally considered of specific importance to women, would become predominant. Former Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum disagrees, contending that "It diminishes women to say that we have one voice and everything in the Senate would change. . . ." Others argue that women should not define their legislative and leadership roles in terms of specific "women's" issues, and that issues related to the economy and national security are of as much importance to women as they are to men.
Will more women in Congress make a difference? Recent research on the impact of female legislators at the state level offers some tantalizing clues. Professor Sue Thomas of Georgetown University has studied a dozen state legislatures and concludes that women lawmakers have "very different policy priorities" from men. While men seem to concentrate on business and economic issues, women focus more on legislation relating to women, children, and family. In addition, women in a legislative body are more likely to work together for women's issues.
If women do make a difference in the legislature, will they form Eleanor Smeal's "critical mass" if they hold one-third of all Congressional seats? State legislative studies indicate that a "relatively high percentage of women is necessary for the passage, on a general basis, of legislation dealing with women, children, and the family." This suggests that women will have to win a lot more seats in Congress before they can hope to significantly influence the national agenda.
For Further Discussion and Writing
- Women have held the right to vote since 1920. Today they go to the polls at a higher rate than men. Why, then, do women still make up only about 10 percent of the members of Congress?
- Do you believe there are men's issues and women's issues? If so, what are they?
- If more women are elected to Congress in the coming years, would you expect them to speak with one voice? Why or why not?
- What does feminist Eleanor Smeal mean when she describes a "critical mass" of women legislators?
- What changes would you expect from an increase of women in Congress?
A C T I V I T Y
Women in Government: What Is Your Opinion?
- Administer the opinion survey to the class.
- Divide the completed surveys by sex and tally the results separately.
- Write the results on the chalkboard. Are there differences in how male and female students answered the questions? Discuss each question by asking the students to explain and defend their answers.
I am xxxxmale xxxxfemale.
1. D0 you believe the country would be better governed if there were more women in Congress?
xxxxYES xxxxNO xxxxNOT SURE
2. A woman and a man (the incumbent) are running for a U.S. Senate seat. Both have good ideas on issues that matter to you.
xxxxA. I would vote for the male candidate because he has more experience in the Senate.
xxxxB. I would vote for the female candidate because women are very underrepresented in the Senate.
xxxxC. I am not sure how I would vote.
3. Do you think Congress should be made up of 50 percent men and 50 percent women?
xxxxYES xxxxNO xxxxNOT SURE
4. In general, do you believe there is a difference between men and women over what public issues they feel are most important?
xxxxYES xxxxNO xxxxNOT SURE