The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: Women in Government Since the 19th Amendment: Elected & Appointed Offices

Week 9:

This week continues our discussion of the impact of the 19th Amendment and women’s enfranchisement, this time turning from women, partisanship, and voting, to women in elected and appointed office in the century since the Amendment was ratified. What progress has been made?  This was also our second week as on online class.

We opened by looking at another one of my timelines – this one, drawn largely from Center for American Women in Politics (thanks!) information, lists the “firsts” of women in office. The Timeline is attached at the end of this post. The students took some time to remark on things they noticed, and asked questions, many of which led to further discussion, or to my offering more contextual or follow-up information. As the discussion died down I followed up by asking whether they were impressed.  I mean, look at all those “firsts.”  Isn’t that great? When they seemed a little reluctant about reaching conclusions, I gave them mine:  I am not at all impressed. Far from it.  What the time line shows is how much continuing friction there is in our “democratic” system that continued – and continues – to strain women out of the sauce. And, we noted, a “first” does not mean women’s participation in that particular way has become normal. No, not impressed.

Our next step was to look at some data on change and comparison, starting with changes in the presence of women in Congress, by party. The data, familiar to women and politics scholars, show very little progress and virtually no partisan difference until the 1980s.  Sixty years after the 19th Amendment no more than 10% of the members of Congress were women. Clear change occurred during the elections of the first “Year of the Woman,” 1992, when the number of women elected to Congress increased, but dramatically more so among the Democratic party. To give a little perspective on the partisan aspect of women’s entry into elective office I discussed the earlier part of the 20th century, when Republican women tended to have more success than Democratic women in gaining state legislative seats, attributable in part to the processes  of political recruitment in those days and the different structures of the parties.

The presence of Democratic women in Congress has continued to grow substantially, while Republican women have made far less progress. After they made some stabs at trying to explain this, I discussed some of the primary reasons we might look to: Recent research shows that Republican women have more trouble getting support within their party than Democratic women do.  There has been a tremendous rise in the existence of organizations dedicated to encouraging women to compete for office, and training them to help them do so – and most, if not all of the large-scale efforts are aimed at Democratic women. We also discussed the Trump effect, both on the gender culture of the Republican party and on the mobilization of Democratic women to enter the fray.  But, despite this progress, we noted that women are still not much even a quarter of the members of Congress.

For a little comparative perspective, I gave them a list of the different countries of the world in order of what percentage of their lower houses of the national legislature are women. The data come from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In those data, only Rwanda and Bolivia have a majority of women (61% and 53%, respectively); in all the rest women are a minority. Only 9 countries are listed as having between 40-49% women.  We scanned through slide after slide showing the “next” 15 in rank order, and finally found the United States, following the 2018 election listed at 79th.  But, I pointed out, that’s significant improvement over the situation after the 2016, when the U.S. was tied at 100th. We discussed various possible explanations for the percentage of women in different national legislatures, and asked how that might be – or not be – understood as a measure of democracy.

We then surveyed the presence of women in different types and levels of elective office in the United States, from the local level through the national, including both legislative and executive offices.  We compared the different states in terms of the presence of women as state legislators, governors, and members of Congress and again, speculated about why we saw those differences and whether there were any patterns. Although I don’t have good answers, much of the object f this discussion was to help them think in social scientific ways: What are our hypotheses? What evidence do we have? What evidence would we need to be able to become more confident in our conclusions? Part of my goal is always not just to teach “the subject” but to teach thinking in a social scientific way.

Next up was a set of graphs and tables showing data on the federal workforce. When student think about “people in government” they usually think about elective office – and maybe some appointed political offices, but it is also important to understand the federal workforce. There are good data by gender and race, job category, agency, and comparison with the civilian workforce. We explored those data to examine the significance for understanding gender, government, and governance.

We ended with two Big Questions.

The first: Why are we stuck in terms of the number of women in elective office? Why, with 51% of the population, are women such a small percentage of those in office? Where is the friction? Here, they discussed and speculated; I brought in findings from research on gender and recruitment to office.

The second: Why does  the number of women in office matter? This, of course, leads to a subject long near and dear to my heart (Sapiro, 1981): gender and representation, including especially the question of descriptive representation.

The “Firsts” Timeline:  TIMELINEHOWLONG

Slides: PO50519thWomeninGovtSince19thAm

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