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Reflections on Women’s Equality Day

Representation at the ballot box — and in the halls of power — has a long way to go.

Last week, the nation commem­or­ated the centen­nial of the rati­fic­a­tion of the 19th Amend­ment and reflec­ted upon its incom­plete prom­ise — and the long road that followed to achieve suffrage for all women. Today is Women’s Equal­ity Day, created follow­ing a resol­u­tion proposed by the late Rep. Bella Abzug in 1971 and passed by Congress two years later to acknow­ledge the struggle to achieve gender equal­ity in all facets of Amer­ican life.

So much of women’s stand­ing and power in this coun­try is inex­tric­ably tied to the vote. Women are now the major­ity of the elect­or­ate. And yet, while the numbers show that women parti­cip­ate vora­ciously in civic life and outnum­ber men at the polls, our repres­ent­a­tion in the halls of power contin­ues to lag.

Follow­ing the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, more women have voted than men in raw numbers in every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Since 1980, the propor­tion of eligible women who voted has been higher than the men’s equi­val­ent. Black women show up at the polls in even more strik­ing numbers, with turnout rates of upwards of 60 percent.

An undeni­able force in the elect­oral system, why don’t women’s votes trans­late to equal repres­ent­a­tion in polit­ical pres­ence and policy prior­it­iz­a­tion?

Accord­ing to the Pew Research Center, around three-quar­ters of women and 60 percent of men said it was easier for men to reach high polit­ical office. A major­ity of those polled believe it is because women must do more to prove them­selves than men. About half also attrib­ute it insuf­fi­cient support from party lead­ers, as well as over­all gender discrim­in­a­tion. Inter­sec­tions of Our Lives, a repro­duct­ive justice coali­tion, conduc­ted a 2019 survey in which 78 percent of the women of color who parti­cip­ated repor­ted that candid­ates fail to focus on the issues that matter to them.

But we may be witness­ing the start of a sea change. For the first time in our coun­try’s history, a woman of color is the Demo­cratic vice pres­id­en­tial candid­ate. Six women ran for pres­id­ent this year; despite a barrage of report­ing on likab­il­ity (and its evil twin, an over­age of ambi­tion), they ran compet­it­ive campaigns. And the number of women of color candid­ates for seats in Congress is also at an all-time high: 267 women are running in 2020, 130 of whom are Black.  

Signi­fic­ant victor­ies may push us closer to a Congress more repres­ent­at­ive of Amer­ica, where there are currently 127 women serving — 26 in the Senate and 101 in the House. Forty-eight are women of color — that’s 9 percent of all 535 members — despite that women of color are 20 percent of the general popu­la­tion.

State legis­latures are only slightly more repres­ent­at­ive. In 2020, less than a third (29 percent) of the 7,383 state legis­lat­ors nation­wide are women, who hold 519 of the 1,972 state senate seats and 1,637 of the 5,411 state­house or assembly seats. Women of color are repres­en­ted at only 7 percent. In 2017, Virginia Deleg­ate Danica Roem won her race as the first openly trans­gender person elec­ted to any state legis­lature in Amer­ica, break­ing new ground. The Center for Public Integ­rity repor­ted that at least 51 trans­gender people ran for federal, state, or local office the follow­ing year, with wins in New Hamp­shire and Color­ado.

And while there are a hand­ful of high-profile women exec­ut­ives — like Michigan’s trio of lead­er­ship (governor, attor­ney general, and secret­ary of state) and the mayors of major cities like San Fran­cisco, Atlanta, and Chicago — even the states that have the best repres­ent­a­tion for women in legis­lature just barely hover around the 50 percent mark. Nevada is the only state in the nation with major­ity repres­ent­a­tion by women at 52 percent.

In order for women’s voting voice to become an equal voice in decision making, the systems them­selves must be part of the solu­tion. In terms of what it takes to run for office, and espe­cially what it takes to fund a campaign, reforms that actively spur more diverse repres­ent­a­tion are crucial. With their reli­ance on small donors, for example, women running for office are said to have to work twice as hard to raise the funds needed to campaign (a success­ful U.S. House race costs an aver­age $1.5 million). Conversely, women are less repres­en­ted in the top donor class, exacer­bat­ing the dispar­ate impact of an already broken system. Public finan­cing of campaigns would reduce the dispar­ity in parti­cip­a­tion based on wealth, while help­ing empower groups who histor­ic­ally have held less lever­age in the polit­ical process.

Voter suppres­sion and barri­ers that hamper parti­cip­a­tion ulti­mately shape policies that impact women. Repro­duct­ive justice issues —span­ning health­care, the envir­on­ment, gun safety, work­place, educa­tion, menstrual equity — are among those that are most comprom­ised by systemic fail­ures. At the Demo­cratic National Conven­tion last week, a mother whose child was crit­ic­ally wounded by gun viol­ence shared her pain­ful truth: “The child that I birthed is not able to live his dreams.”

That is the essence of the distinct power of a woman’s voice. We must focus on the reforms that will ensure the prom­ise of repres­ent­a­tion not only at the ballot box, but fully, fairly — and finally — in the halls of power too.

The views expressed are the authors’ own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center. The authors acknow­ledge Hazel Millard for her research that is reflec­ted in this piece.