Nearly one hundred years since obtaining the right to vote, women in America have steadily seen hard-fought gains in political representation. Yet the highest office in the land, the American presidency, has eluded more than 200 women who have sought the Oval Office. (1) The 2020 election may change this reality forever, as, for the first time, five highly qualified women are running for the presidency. A win by any of these leaders would bring the nation one step closer to its promise of representative democracy, and would have tremendous implications for representation and governance in both the American political process and around the world.
GENDER REPRESENTATION IN GOVERNANCE IS FAR FROM EQUAL, BUT HAS PROGRESSED SINCE 1992
"It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people - women as well as men," So declared Susan B. Anthony in a speech soon after her arrest for casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election. At the time, such an act was illegal for women. (2) Although she would not live to see it, the work of Anthony and other suffragettes would eventually lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which finally granted women the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. (3)
One century later, the same nation that once arrested Anthony for attempting to vote now has five qualified women running to lead it. The road to gender equality in American society has been long, hard-fought, and remains far from complete, as women continue to make 81 cents on the dollar from their male coworkers and the Equal Rights Amendment remains unratified by the states. (4,5) However, progress, particularly in the past four decades, has been undeniable. A record 102 women currently serve in the 435-member House of Representatives, while 25 women serve in the 100-member Senate, representing the highest rate of women in Congress ever at 23.7 percent of the overall body (6)
Much of that progress has come since 1992, which is remembered as the Year of the Woman. (7) In fact, nearly two thirds of the 325 women who have served in the House of Representatives have been elected since 1992, and 52 percent of the women in the Senate have taken office since 2000. (8) The seeds for this change may have been planted in the year prior, 1991, when Anita Hill, a law professor at Brandeis University, testified before an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee that her former employer, and then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her in a previous workplace. The insults and dismissiveness faced by Hill during those hearings enraged and activated an unprecedented number of women to run for office, and eventually sent 28 new female legislators to Washington. (9)
WOMEN HAVE BEEN THE MOST ACTIVATED SEGMENT OF THE ELECTORATE SINCE THE 2016 ELECTION
The recent 2016 presidential election marked a breakthrough moment in American politics for gender representation. For the first time, a major party nominated a woman for President: Hillary Clinton. Clinton was an exceptionally qualified candidate to run for the Presidency, having previously served as a First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State.
Clinton was met with an opponent uniquely hostile to women, one who had previously referred to certain women as "fat pigs," "slobs" and "disgusting animals." (10) Donald Trump mocked a Fox News anchor for having a menstrual cycle, insulted the appearance of one of his Republican opponent's wives, and bragged about committing sexual assault on tape. (11) Since winning the presidency, he has codified his rhetoric into policy, by rolling back contraceptive access, reversing sexual assault protections on college campuses, withholding federal funds from organizations that provide reproductive health services, ending report requirements on pay inequality, and nominating two Supreme Court judges that have demonstrated hostility towards abortion access. (12)
The events immediately following the election of Mr. Trump foreshadowed a deep cultural shift: the day after his inauguration marked the largest one-day protest in the nation's history, with an estimated 4.2 million people participating in Women's Marches in 600 cities around the country. (13) According to one Pew Survey, nearly six in ten women said they were paying more attention to politics since the 2016 election, compared with 46 percent of men. (14) One poll by Elle found that 74 percent of all women reported feeling infuriated by the news at least once per day, and that 57 percent of women were angrier in 2018 than they were the previous year. (15)
These women were not only paying attention, but also turning their anger into action. As implementation of the President's agenda started to affect women's everyday lives, Democratic women began to mobilize in the political process at unprecedented rates. One survey by Lake Research Polling demonstrated that 86 percent of those participating in daily actions such as calling or texting their legislators were women, and 77 percent of them were "very likely" to protest again in the future. (16) More than 40,000 women contacted EMILY's List, the American political action committee for Democratic women, expressing interest in running for political office in the 2018 election cycle, up from 920 for the 2016 cycle. (17) Donations to female congressional candidates increased by 36 percent from the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (18)
One final, formative event crystalized many women's perceptions of the Trump Administration and its posture towards women. On July 9th, 2018, the President nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. As credible accusations of sexual assault by Judge Kavanaugh were uncovered, the Administration refused to reconsider the nomination. September 27th, 2018 marked the day when Judge Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology from California, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (19) Carrying echoes of the Anita Hill hearings almost two decades prior, the nation once again watched as a woman faced pointed questioning and thinly-veiled incredulity before another majority-male committee, especially from the Republican side of the dais. Recent polling by PerryUndem indicates that the Kavanaugh hearings, in particular, caused 50 percent of voters to "think about disproportionate gender and power dynamics in government" and as a result, made them twice as likely to vote for Democrats. (20)
These factors all converged to catalyze tremendous gains for women in the 2018 midterm elections. 112 women were elected, winning more seats in Congress than ever...