Women voters: Their growing influence in politics and policy

Women carrying ballot boxes on a stretcher during a suffrage parade on Oct. 23, 1915, in New York City. Those scowling men glaring at the suffragists had no idea what they were up against. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Women carrying ballot boxes on a stretcher during a suffrage parade on Oct. 23, 1915, in New York City. Those scowling men glaring at the suffragists had no idea what they were up against. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In 2016, it’s hard to imagine a time when women in the United States weren’t allowed to vote. Yet it’s been less than a century in this country, and even less than that in other places around the globe, when women weren’t allowed to have a voice at the polls.

Women (well, white women, anyway) received the right to vote on a national scale with the final adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Some Western states had given women the vote earlier, as did a few other countries in the 1800s. Women in South Australia, Finland, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere received voting rights before U.S. women did. The United Kingdom had a widespread women’s suffrage movement and enacted full women’s suffrage in 1928.

Throughout the 20th century, many countries followed the franchise lead by giving women the vote. The United Nations backed women’s suffrage after World War II, and in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women adopted suffrage as a basic right, with 189 countries signing on. Women even voted in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 2015.

After American women started voting in 1920, it took a while for women to catch up with their male counterparts. But by 1980, women were voting at the same rate as men. Since then, women have been outvoting men consistently, and the gender gap has been widening.

Nearly 10 million more women than men voted in 2008: 65.7 percent of eligible female voters vs. 61.5 percent of eligible male voters. In the 2012 election, exit polls showed that women voters made up 53 percent of the electorate. Even in a low-turnout election like 2014 (less than 37 percent of the electorate voted), women outvoted men by two percentage points. In most states, more women than men are registered to vote.

So what are women doing with all of this electoral power, and how did they get it in the first place?

The suffrage fight in the U.S. really started in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other activists, many of them Quakers, organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, the first women’s rights convention. The activists passed a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage, even though some organizers thought the idea was too extreme. One man at the convention was abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spoke out strongly in favor of women’s suffrage.

The suffrage movement gained steam throughout the rest of the 19th century. Two competing women’s suffrage groups were formed in 1869. One was headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the other, by Lucy Stone. Although the groups initially were bitter rivals, they merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to be headed by Anthony. The organization grew to 2 million members by the early 20th century.

At first, suffragists hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would give women the constitutional right to vote. During the late 1860s and 1870s, hundreds of women tried to vote in local and national elections and were turned away. They filed lawsuits seeking voting rights for women, basing those suits on Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which reads that “all persons” born or naturalized in the U.S. by definition have full rights, which include voting rights. In 1875, however, the Supreme Court ruled against those suits.

The women moved their voting rights fight to two fronts: Individual states and a constitutional amendment, first introduced in Congress in 1878. Anthony actually voted in the presidential election of 1872, was arrested, and was convicted in a sensational trial (she was fined $100 and refused to pay; the judge let the fine slide).

Suffragists went on hunger strikes (and were force-fed in prison). They picketed and set bonfires in front of the White House and were arrested by the hundreds. They held parades in major cities like New York. More states were added to the women’s suffrage column, like Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Wearing a cape and crown, suffragist activist Inez Milholland Boissevain led the 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington on a white horse. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Wearing a cape and crown, suffragist activist Inez Milholland Boissevain led the 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington on a white horse. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The first major national effort was launched on March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president. Suffragists organized a massive parade in Washington, traveling from states all across the country to participate. The parade featured 8,000 marchers, nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical tableau near the Treasury Building with women dressed as Columbia and other classical characters. They had a built-in audience of tens of thousands, many of whom had come to the nation’s capital to see the inauguration, and mostly male crowds lined each side of Pennsylvania Avenue, often blocking the parade route. The marchers were ridiculed, harassed, and sometimes assaulted by the men in the crowd. At the end of the event, 100 marchers had been hospitalized. The mistreatment of the marchers turned the parade into a national news story and led to congressional hearings and the resignation of Washington’s police chief.

Changing attitudes about women’s roles during World War I seemed to turn the tide. President Wilson worked to make sure the 19th Amendment passed. The wording mirrors the wording of the 15th Amendment, substituting “sex” for “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and it finally passed both houses of Congress in 1919. Under pressure to make sure it was adopted before the 1920 election, state lawmakers began to ratify the amendment. The final state was Tennessee on Aug. 18, 1920. After the amendment was fully adopted, the group known as the National American Woman Suffrage Association became the group we know today as the League of Women Voters.

(A personal side note: The 19th Amendment was formally adopted on Aug. 26, 1920. Now, Aug. 26 happens to be my birthday, and I remember how thrilled I was as a kid when I found that the two dates coincided. What can I say? I was politically geeky at a young age.)

Congress' first female member: Jeanette Rankin

Congress’ first female member: Jeanette Rankin

The first woman to serve in Congress was Rep. Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana who was elected to the House in 1916. Rankin had worked successfully to give Montana women the right to vote in 1914, so it was no surprise that she worked hard to pass the 19th Amendment during her first term in Congress. “How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen?” she asked her male colleagues. “How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

Rankin was one of 50 legislators to vote against joining World War I, which killed her House re-election chances in 1918 (she ran for the Senate as a third-party candidate and lost). She was elected to Congress again in 1940, when she became the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said of that vote.

Women voters obviously span the political divide from the most liberal to the most conservative, even as more tend to vote Democratic. Politicians, political consultants, and the media love to lump voters together into categories, especially women voters. The sought-after middle-class suburban mother voter became known as the “soccer mom.” After 9/11, the woman voter concerned about terrorism became the “security mom” (a demographic Republicans try to resurrect and exploit after any terrorist attack). “Walmart moms” are lower-income mothers with children younger than 18, who have shopped at Walmart stores within the last month. Single women even have been described (derisively, by Fox News) as “Beyoncé voters.”

If candidates want to win today, they better give women a good reason to support them. Consider this Washington Post opinion piece written back in 2014 about the necessity of winning the women’s vote, especially the single women’s vote:

The truth is that women vote in higher numbers than men do. We have in every presidential election since 1980, and the gap has widened over time. In 2012, the difference in turnout was nearly 4 percentage points (63.7 percent of ladies voted vs. 59.8 percent of gents). The disparity was more than twice as large if you look just at those who have never been married. Girls, it seems, really do run this world. …

“In the past it could be said that there wasn’t a sort of winner or loser in terms of the positions you took on women’s issues. Gerald Ford was as supportive of women’s issues as Jimmy Carter was,” says Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans clearly showed women that there are sides.”

Efforts to mobilize the Christian right, too, may have had the unintended effect of also mobilizing women — not only to the polls, but away from the Republican ticket.

Social issues can boost women voter turnout on both sides. In the 2004 election, 11 states included bans on gay marriage on the ballot. They all passed, boosting electoral support for President George Bush, and he won re-election. Although John Kerry had a slight edge in the women’s vote overall, Bush captured the white women’s vote by a big margin, 58 percent to 41 percent.

The tables were turned In the 2012 election, when women’s reproductive rights became front and center as an issue. Gaffes from Republican candidates such as Missouri’s Todd Akin and his comments about “legitimate rape”  and pregnancy allowed Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill to breeze to re-election. In Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly beat Republican Richard Mourdock after Mourdock said in an interview that pregnancy from rape was “something that God intended.” Rush Limbaugh’s “slut-shaming” of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke merely pushed her onto the national stage of the Democratic National Convention and into public life.

As the Center for American Progress reported after the election, all of that paid off for Democrats. There was a 10-point gender gap between men (voting GOP) and women (voting Democratic). That wide gender gap existed with white, black, and Latina women. But despite the emphasis on reproductive rights, “jobs and the economy are still the primary concern” of women voters.

All of this doesn’t even address one of the strongest voting blocs of all: Black women. A piece on Huffington Post with the headline “Black Women’s Votes Matter” gave some statistics on the growing number of African-American women voters and their increasing presence and influence in the American electorate. In the 2012 presidential election, black women had the highest voter turnout rate of all voters in the United States between ages 18 and 29.

The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation reports that a 2015 Power to the Sister Vote Survey by Essence magazine and the Black Women’s Roundtable polled 2,000 African-American women on what issues those voters were looking at when choosing a candidate. Topping the list was affordable health care, livable wage jobs, and college affordability. As the Huffington Post piece says:

Black women voters are taking an active interest in several key issues including criminal justice reform, affordable health care, and the minimum wage. The poll also reveals that black women have no intention of letting up at the polls.

According to Vanessa DeLuca, editor-in-chief of Essence, “Black women will continue to have strong voter turnout numbers and perhaps lead the nation as they have done in the last two presidential elections.”

Therefore, when presidential candidates are making passionate appeals to various demographic groups during this election season, black women should be a top priority. Candidates who ignore black women voters do so at their own peril.

Republicans should keep that in mind as they propose to ban funding for Planned Parenthood or pass even more draconian abortion restrictions. Maybe Donald Trump’s quotes about women will come back to haunt him.

So in honor of Women’s History Month—and to quote a cigarette ad from 1968—we’ve come a long way, baby.

Originally published on Daily Kos, March 20, 2016.

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