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New Book Discussion -- We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States

March 24, 2008 // 3:00pm5:00pm

Jo Freeman, Independent Writer, and Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, author; commentators Mary Ellen Curtin, Lecturer in American History, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom, and Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; A. James Reichley, Author and former Visiting Senior Fellow, Public Policy Institute, Georgetown University.

It is a common misconception that women entered American electoral politics only after they won the right to vote. In fact, as Jo Freeman noted in the Division of United States Studies' discussion of her We Will Be Heard, women have been participating in politics for over 120 years. Freeman described the way women moved steadily into positions of political power through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how political parties impacted that movement.

Women's involvement in electoral politics and the suffrage movement ran on parallel tracks, with few women participating in both. In New York State, for example, women were active in political movements such as municipal reform in the 1890s, before the suffragists won enfranchisement for women in the state in 1917. The political reformers' struggle for power in electoral politics, while separate from the suffrage movement, helped to advance the movement. Once the franchise was won, female political reformers, already familiar with the election process, were quite prepared to enter electoral politics and did so with enthusiasm.

The major political parties have not been neutral on the issue of women in politics. In the 1880s, the Republican Party recognized that the Prohibition Party, largely the work of women, was costing it votes. In response, in 1892, the Republican Party asked J. Ellen Foster to organize its female supporters into the Women's National Republican Association. The Democratic Party did not organize the women within its ranks until 1912 – a threshold year for the suffrage movement. Washington and California had granted women the right to vote in 1910 and 1911, respectively. Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Progressive Party ticket in the 1912 presidential election, recognized that women could therefore affect a substantial number of electoral votes, and so added the issue of suffrage to his campaign platform.

The women's political movement of the 1960s and 1970s was split on the issue of equality versus protection. Protective legislation supposedly protected women by denying them access to various "dangerous" or "immoral" jobs and to work at night – which meant they had little opportunity to work at jobs that paid higher wages. Advocates of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, wanted equal treatment of men and women under the law and were able to get both bills through Congress with bipartisan support. (ERA, however, failed to be ratified by the necessary three-quarters of all the states.) Looking at the debates surrounding the addition of "sex" as a category covered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the debates in the 1970s about ERA, Mary Ellen Curtin argued that at both moments there was a consensus that women were equal but there was no agreement about what "equal" meant. The debate in 1964 was in fact about protective legislation and whether women needed protection specific to them, rather than change, and about whether the definition of men's jobs and women's jobs should be altered. The ERA debate in turn became one about feminism and the meaning of both "equality" and "women's liberation."

James Reichley suggested that women's involvement in politics dated at least as far back as Abigail Adams urging her husband to see that, in writing the Constitution, the founders "remember the ladies." While John Adams and the other founders ignored the possibility of women in politics, Abraham Lincoln stated during his campaign that women who paid taxes should be able to vote. Both Reichley and Freeman noted that support for women's political roles later varied according to political party. Between the 1920s and 1960s, women were more likely than men to vote Republican in Presidential elections, and the GOP was more likely to include women's issues in its party platform. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s led many women of the 1980s to begin voting for Democratic Party candidates, and that Party became the champion of women's rights.

The party divide remains today, Freeman concluded. Although women have made strides in electoral politics, with over fifty women running for president of the United States on non-major party tickets between 1954 and 2004, party affiliation still plays a role in the number of women currently in public office. While one-third of Democratic officeholders today are women, only 10 to 15 percent of Republican officeholders are women. Reichley commented that the shift of married women to the Democratic Party is a major problem for Republicans now – a problem that may play a role in the 2008 elections.

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