WUWF is observing the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Our first report explored the decades-long battle for women’s suffrage, culminating with certification of the amendment on August 26, 1920. Today, a focus on the progress of women’s participation in elections, by voting and holding political office themselves.
“That was a very gradual thing and the truth is it’s still very disappointing that women are so under-represented in political office,” stated Dr. Marjorie Spruill, a retired history professor from the University of South Carolina and noted authority on women and politics.
Spruill says the state of Montana was one of the earliest to endorse women’s suffrage, and put a woman in office.
“They elected a woman, Jeannette Rankin to Congress in 1916. So, she was already there even before 1920,” Spruill said. “After 1920, the numbers of women begins to grow, but it was gradual. And, at least in Congress, it seemed like the main way that many women got into Congress was if they were the widows of men who died in office.”
Noted examples of the so-called “widow’s game” in politics include, Nellie Ross of Wyoming, who replaced her deceased husband and became the nation’s first woman governor in 1925.
Appointed to fill her husband’s seat, Hattie Wyatt Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate in 1932.
In 1938, Crystal Bird Fauset from Pennsylvania became the first black woman elected to a state legislature.
“It’s extremely important to recognize that African American women citizens were definitely enfranchised by the 19th Amendment, in the sense that, like all women who were citizens their rights to vote were then established. But, outside the South, African American women were very definitely voting, very active.”
In the South, Spruill says state governments were intent on establishing and preserving white supremacy in politics and enacted numerous measures to suppress voter participation among blacks, even resorting to violence.
“In Florida, there was an actual riot of white citizens, opposed to black suffrage, who came in and killed a lot of black citizens and burned much of the town, because there had been rumors that black people had been planning to use their right to vote,” said Spruill.
“When grandpa got shot, then everybody started shooting,” proclaims the grandson of a white man involved in the Nov. 1920 election day race riot in Ocoee, Florida, in a clip from a Third World Newsreel documentary.
Moving forward in time, Spruill says the success of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped embolden the modern Women’s Rights Movement.
By 1970, fifty years after the 19th Amendment granted the right to vote, other women’s issues were front and center.
In a CBS news archive, legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite sums up the situation, “On this anniversary, a militant minority of women’s liberationists was on the streets across the country to demand equal employment for women, care centers for mothers, child abortion for anyone who wants them, and general equality between and men.”
Chants of “Sisterhood is powerful, join us now,” resonate as the report continues.
Dr. Spruill chronicles this contentious time in U.S. political history in her book, “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics. “
“It’s focused first on the 1970s and how the rise of the modern Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960s then reached a golden age in the early 70s, before conservative women started to organize against it and when both parties were solidly behind it,” she said of her book.
This was a period marked by numerous equality gains for women in the Supreme Court and through changes in antiquated laws and policies.
But, not all women were on board, and a major turning point occurred in 1977, when the Conservative Women’s Movement successfully mounted a counter “pro-life, pro-family” rally at a Women’s Rights event in Houston.
Spruill argues that the two rallies and the build up to them, “Really had the role of sort of codifying the demands and views on each side and then galvanizing and unifying the supporters of each side and making all of them aware that women needed to be very active in politics to stand up for their beliefs.”
Due to this activism, Spruill notes that women turned out to the polls in high numbers. In the 1980 presidential election, women cast votes in greater numbers than men for the first time in U.S. history.
“Up until then, women’s turnout had not been as high as men, but now in 1980, it exceeded that and now it has continued to do that in every election since,” she said.
Another uptick in women’s participation in politics occurred in the early 1990s, after the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.
“It became the hearings in which many women watching all over the country believed that she had been very badly treated and many people around the country insisted she was lying,” Spruill explained. “And, it actually inspired a major increase in the number of women running for office and a whole lot of them won.”
There was another big increase in women running and winning in 2000, led by Hillary Clinton’s election to the U.S. Senate in New York.
Clinton's loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election, and a rise in the “Me Too” Movement, provided another spark in political activism, with the Women’s March in 2017.
“This is what democracy looks like,” was one of the chants by some of the millions of women who attended in Washington, D.C.
In the 2018 midterm election that followed, women broke records for the number of candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
“We have more women in Congress now than we’ve had before, and certainly a more diverse group of women,” Spruill declared.
Topping it off, she pointed to Democrat Joe Biden’s history-making selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his presidential running mate.
“So, in 2020 on the anniversary of women’s suffrage, we have a woman of color who is the nominee of a major party for vice president.”