Nevertheless she persisted: women in politics

by | Mar 8, 2017 | News

According to The Center for Women and Politics, women account for less than a third of elected representatives in Congress and all other elected offices. In 1971 women accounted for less than ten percent of elected office holders. We have made some progress in 46 years but there is still much to do. The glass ceiling in politics has actually been a solid cement barrier of exclusion, fortified by entrenched and erroneous beliefs about women’s abilities and strengths.

Remember this woman’s name: Susanna Medora Salter. In 1887 Salter became the first woman ever elected to a political office in the United States. She was elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, as a member of the Prohibition Party. Salter’s nomination was actually made as a joke, but she surprised everyone by winning handily.

It was not until 1916 that Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist from Montana, was elected to the House of Representatives and became the first woman elected to a national office. Rankin was a social worker and a graduate of the University of Montana. She was one of a small number of suffragists elected to Congress. Remarkably, she was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II.

The House reportedly cheered when Rankin was called to be sworn in. Six years later Rebecca Felton, of Georgia, was appointed to the Senate to fill a temporary vacancy and only served for two days as the first woman senator. Ten more years passed before a woman was actually elected to the Senate. Hattie Wyatt Caraway won a special election in Arkansas in 1932.

Caraway had already been serving in the Senate after her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, died in office. The governor had appointed her to her husband’s vacant seat in a gesture of sentimentality. However, she easily won reelection with 92 percent of the vote. She went on to create the Arkansas Women’s Democratic Club.

Fighting for equality

The fact that women are still underrepresented in government is not news to most women, and especially not to women of color and minority communities. They have been experiencing institutionalized discrimination in their daily lives all along.

Shockingly, or perhaps not so shockingly, the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress did not take her seat in the chamber until 1965! Patsy Mink, a native Hawaiian of Japanese descent, was elected to to the House of Representatives in 1964 by the state of Hawaii, which had only been a state for five years at the time.

Then there was Shirley Chisholm, an influential and formidable politician. Chisholm, was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She won election to the House in New York in 1968 and stated: “That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

In 1969 Chisholm helped found the Congressional Black Caucus. And in 1972 she made history again by becoming the first African-American nominated by a major political party — Democratic, of course — as a candidate for the U.S. presidency. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.” Chisholm was a savvy politician, and waged fierce battles as one of very few women representatives.

Chisholm was fluent in Spanish, which helped her win a district that had a large population of Puerto Rican immigrants. She went on to fight for an increase in federal funding for daycare, and continued to advocate for more education funding at all levels. Her vociferous advocacy often garnered opposition from within her own party. Nevertheless she persisted.

Making progress

1974 was a banner year. It was the year that saw two openly gay women elected. There were, of course, many gay women and men to have served previously, without their sexual orientation being known. The first openly gay candidate ever elected to office in the United States was a woman named Kathy Kozachenko. Kozachenko was elected to a seat on the Ann Arbor, Michigan city council.

Later the same year, Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She became the first openly gay or lesbian candidate to win a state election. Noble held her office for two terms. Certainly, this was a rare public instance where women paved the way for men. Harvey Milk, a San Francisco gay activist, was the first openly gay man elected to office in 1978, and was subsequently murdered within weeks of taking office.

The first Hispanic-American woman was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1952, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has held her seat for Florida for over 27 years. Ros-Lehtinen and her family came here as immigrants fleeing the Castro regime. She is an educator, holding a Doctorate in Education from the University of Miami. She is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, and serves on the Budget Committee and the Rules Committee.

Other women who are making a difference right now include Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-American activist and Washington’s 7th District Congressional representative. Jayapal recently took her seat in the House after running on a platform that called for a higher minimum wage, debt-free college, and a progressive immigrant rights stance. There is also Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran, who beat the incumbent Republican in 2016. Previously, she represented Illinois’s 8th Congressional District. She has focused on veterans issues and education.

See Jane run

Women’s victories in politics have been hard-fought. According to She Should Run, the data is kind of surprising. Many states you might consider progressive have never elected a woman governor. And yet states like Texas have had a famously feminist woman governor, Ann Richards–mother of Cecile Richards who is the current president of both the Planned Parenthood Federation of America the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

There are still three states that have never sent a woman to Congress. Name It, Change It, a nonpartisan project of She Should Run and the Women’s Media Center, explains that a primary driver in the small numbers of women in elected positions can be attributed, in part, to the sexist mainstream media. But isn’t media just a reflection, if somewhat distorted, of our own cultural proclivities and habits?

We already know that sexism is real, and we already know that we face an uphill battle. We need to consider ways of changing how media portrays women, in every walk of life, but especially in politics. So we must keep up the fight. If we have learned anything from that fateful night on November 8, it is that we have not come nearly as far as we should have. Women are half of the population and that should be reflected more closely in our representation.

Even with all of the institutional obstacles in our way, there is still a way forward. We are still getting women elected. Recently, there has been an impressive surge in women deciding to run for office — 4,500 women in fact. This new fire has been fueled by the overtly oppressive and regressive policies and actions of the current political power grid. Women cannot afford to wait years longer for their best interests to be considered. And so they are taking matters into their own hands.

Remember Susanna Medora Salter. Remember Patsy Mink. Remember Shirley Chisholm. Remember Kathy Kozachenko. Remember Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. They are forever woven into the fabric of our democracy. We stand on their shoulders. They believed they could overcome. They ran. They persisted! And so should you. There are resources and grassroots groups like Together We Will to support us. We must persist.

Learn more about the women featured in this article, as well as other members of Congress, at the U.S. House of Representatives Office of History, Art & Archives.  

Where do we go from here?

Now that we know a little of our own political history, we must be sure to forge our own future. Here is a list of organizations who can help us elect women into office.  If we don’t do it, nobody will! 

Emerge America. “Emerge America’s role is to serve the states where we work, open new state programs and build capacity to train more women in each of our current states. We provide our program’s alumnae with a strong, supportive network of women in politics, which includes a national association of Emerge alumnae, the Emerge board and advisory council members.”

Emily’s List. “Our vision is a government that reflects the people it serves, and decision makers who genuinely and enthusiastically fight for greater opportunity and better lives for the Americans they represent. We will work for larger leadership roles for pro-choice Democratic women in our legislative bodies and executive seats so that our families can benefit from the open-minded, productive contributions that women have consistently made in office.”

Run for Office“Today, 40 percent of state legislature races go uncontested and the problem is worse at the local level. There is a crisis of leadership occurring in our democracy. We need more people to lead. We need more people to run for office. Run for Office is a free service that provides all the tools you need to launch a successful campaign whether you are a seasoned veteran or first-time campaigner.”

Running Start. “Running Start supports the young women who will shape tomorrow’s world. We aim to plant the seed of interest in politics so that they will run earlier, climb higher through leadership, and share more in the decision making power of their country. These young women will bring in new ideas to help solve old problems, and will raise issues unique to their lives that have otherwise been overlooked in politics.”

She Should Run. “She Should Run is a non-partisan 501(c)3 organization expanding the talent pool of future elected female leaders. She Should Run started as a project in 2008 and has evolved to become a movement working to create a culture that inspires women and girls to aspire towards public leadership. We believe that women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.”

Jacqui Viale is an educator living in Long Beach, California with her husband and two children. She is a vocal advocate for public education and women’s and girl’s rights. She holds a Master’s in Educational Administration from California State University, Long Beach.