Many suffrage supporters anticipated a new political age after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Despite these hopes for transformation of the polity, today women have only begun to realize their electoral potential. Whether woman's role as voter will ultimately reconfirm the status quo or radically alter political life remains an open question.
After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, only a minority of women registered to vote (League of Women Voters 1983). Statistics in New York and Illinois from the early 1920s indicate that between 35 and 46 percent of eligible women actually voted. At that same time, nearly 75 percent of men cast their votes (Chafe 1972, 30). In the mid-1920s, politicians recognized that "the mass of female citizens failed to act in the cohesive and committed manner which the suffragists had predicted" (Chafe 1972, 29).
From the 1920s through the 1950s, older women were members of a generation that still sometimes associated the prerogative of voting with male citizenship. Prior to 1920, anti-suffrage groups had drawn both men and women to their ranks in an effort to "protect the home." Thus, it is not surprising that (especially) some older women did not choose to vote once the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
A lag time in registering and exercising the franchise is, in fact, characteristic of any new voter cohort:
Once given the vote... women were slow to use their new privilege. This is typical of any newly enfranchised group. A period of socialization must normally transpire before any new group's turnout equals that of the rest of the electorate. (Gant and Luttbeg 1991, 89)
Comparative studies of women's enfranchisement in other countries indicate that overall voter turnout typically dropped after women were given the vote and took time to return to the higher levels (Kleppner 1982, 62). As Charlotte Perkins Gilman noted, "(I)f men, with all their years of political power, knowledge and experience, send only half their number to the polls, why should we expect the new voters to do more?" (1927, 7)
Historians of women's political culture advise against too narrow a focus on voting as a measure of women's political involvement. There has been an evolution of participation that includes voting, running for public office, and forming networks and organizations to represent women's interests. Women had engaged in significant work for societal reform throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they continued this work after the Nineteenth Amendment passed. Direct political participation, such as running for office and voting, depended on the development of new patterns of behavior. Organizations such as the League of Women Voters played a central role in socializing women to an expanded political role, instructing women "in the tasks of citizenship so that they could work more effectively within existing political organizations" (Chafe 1972, 34).
During the 1920s, women's political involvement took three divergent paths:
The largest, best organized group fought to continue and expand the reforms of the Progressive Era... The smallest, most militant group... saw the suffrage victory as only the first step in the fight to win full equality for women. The third group used the vote to gain access to the party structure and worked for positions in the legislature and executive offices as the most practical way to reform the system. (Brown 1987, 50)
Representing the first trend, the League of Women Voters worked on a non-partisan basis to involve women in politics, but did not support the Equal Rights Amendment; the National Woman's Party promoted the broader feminist agenda contained in the Equal Rights Amendment; and the Democratic and Republican women's organizations pursued their own goals, chiefly aimed at getting women nominated and elected to state and local office. To some extent, these three contrasting emphases continue today to define women's divergent political aims.
Many women also remained committed to work for social reform, regardless of their view of the most appropriate political strategy for women. Important centers of this kind of activity were state and local women's clubs and professional organizations.
An example of the effect of this kind of endeavor was the first federal social welfare legislation, the Sheppard-Towner Act, which was passed in 1921 as the result of a broad-based coalition of women's groups. This bill provided for infant and maternal health programs. The program was a striking success, and many state governments continued to fund it after federal monies ended in 1929 (Sklar 1993, 78).
During the 1930s, as it struggled to move out of the Great Depression, the country focused on economic and social welfare issues. Impressive gains were made for women in government because of their traditional involvement with such concerns, thanks in large part to the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt. As Susan Ware has noted, the record of women's appointments to high administrative positions in the 1930s was not seen again until the 1960s (1981, 89). Still, even Eleanor Roosevelt complained at the end of the thirties that women's suffrage had brought "no really great changes in government" (quoted in Kaledin 1984, 89).
World War II and Its Aftermath
Throughout the 1940s, a wide variety of women's organizations formed alliances devoted to expanding women's participation in elected and appointed office. America's involvement in World War II increased the importance of women's economic contribution as women took over jobs that men had left behind to fight the war. As a result of this increased economic and political impact, women's organizations focused their attention on continued inequities in pay and promotion (Hartmann 1982, 157).
From the earliest days of the women's rights movement, there were divisions along class, ethnic, and racial lines, which prevented greater gender solidarity. During the 1930s, "(m)iddle class women benefited disproportionately from improvements in health care, employment opportunities in welfare programs, and the right to vote" (Ladd-Taylor 1993, 339). Similarly, during the 1940s, many of these rifts persisted: "The white, middle class insularity of more privileged women resulted in their failure to recognize the immediate material needs of blue-collar women and in their insensitivity to the weight of racial oppression on their black sisters" (Hartmann 1982, 145). Such divisions persist to this day.
The women's history of the 1950s is often seen simply as the era of motherhood, large families, and suburban development. The decade was, however, an important time of expansion in the participation of women in the labor force. By 1960, twice as many women were employed as in 1940 (Chafe 1972, 218). The decade was not a dramatic period for women's involvement in politics. The election of 1952 brought the first sign of a "gender gap" in voting, as women voted particularly strongly to put Dwight David Eisenhower into the White House (Baxter and Lansing 1980, 61-62). Roper survey data before and after the election indicated that 58 percent of all women, across all social groups, voted for Eisenhower, while only 52 percent of all men did. Since 1920, women had favored the Republicans, but the difference in 1952 was particularly great. In 1954, Louis Harris looked back on the election and commented: "It raises the real possibility that in the future there will be a 'woman's vote' quite separate from the men's" (quoted in Baxter and Lansing 1980, 62).
Eisenhower placed a number of women in government positions, including Clare Booth Luce, Ivy Baker Priest, and Frances Bolton. However, the Republican victory also brought about the end of both the Democratic and Republican Parties' Women's Divisions and the departure from public office of a large group of New Deal political women (Kaledin 1984, 83).
In 1954, Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok published Ladies of Courage, a book meant to stimulate women's participation in politics by profiling such women as Margaret Chase Smith, Clare Boothe Luce, and Helen Gahagan Douglas (Kaledin 1984, 34). However, the authors maintained that "rarely do (men) admit that it is next to impossible for a woman to get the nomination in a district where her party can win" (quoted in Kaledin 1984, 87).
Most of women's real political work during the fifties occurred behind the scenes or at the grassroots level. Very few women gained elected public office. Older women remained about 14 percent less likely to vote than comparably aged men. Nevertheless, overall, women steadily increased their level of voting, with the gap between men's and women's turnout rates down to 4 percent by 1964 (Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980, 43). Since 1964, women regularly cast more ballots than men: 42.3 million female votes (or 67 percent of all eligible women) as opposed to 34 million male votes (71.9 percent of all men) in the 1964 presidential election (National Commission on Working Women 1984). By 1968, women's voting rate (66 percent) nearly equaled that of mens' (69 percent). Also, party line voting became less important during the sixties and issue voting more important (Baxter and Lansing 1980, 62).
In the 1960 presidential election, women initially favored Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, who was perceived as too aggressive toward the Russian leadership and thus more likely to take the country into war. By election day, women's support for Kennedy was about even with their support for Nixon (Baxter and Lansing 1980, 64). Nevertheless, had women alone been voting, Nixon would have been elected (Gallup 1980, 234).
In 1961, only two women served as senators and fifteen as congresswomen, a very small number, even though it was a record. From 1968 to 1972, the number of women at Democratic conventions increased from 13 percent to 39 percent; the number of women at Republication conventions grew from 17 percent to 30 percent (Linden-Ward and Hurd Green 1993, 26).
Perhaps the most significant development for the role of women in politics during that time was the establishment of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, led by Eleanor Roosevelt and Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor and director of the Women's Bureau. The goal of this commission was to investigate problems of sex discrimination, not within the framework of the Equal Rights Amendment, but instead within the old ideology of protective legislation for women. In fact, Peterson's role on the commission was to "steer it away from advocacy of what she called 'that awful Equal Rights Amendment situation'" (Wandersee 1988, 16-17). As a result of the division among women's organizations, and for a variety of other reasons, the ERA was ultimately defeated during the ratification process by the states. However, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women led to the formation of comparable state commissions that helped create extensive women's networks at the state level for discussion of women's issues, augmented by the establishment later in the sixties of the National Organization for Women.
In the 1968 presidential election, women's vote alone would have elected Hubert Humphrey over Nixon. Only half as many women as men supported George Wallace that year. Ethel Klein's analysis in her book Gender Politics comes to the following conclusion: "Since Nixon's victory was extremely close, by a margin of only 510,000 popular votes, the outcome could have been reversed if women's turnout had been higher" (1984, 143).
Reform in the rules governing participation in political parties brought more women into the political process. As a result, women played an expanded role, especially in the 1972 Democratic convention. Concern for the women's vote that year shaped McGovern's campaign organization, public relations strategy, and style as a candidate (Baxter and Lansing 1980, 63).
Issues loomed large in 1972, with pundits announcing that the election would be a referendum on Vietnam, busing, and the performance of the economy. George McGovern was ineffective in convincing female voters that he offered a better alternative than Richard Nixon, who held a decisive support base among men. In the end, Nixon won by a landslide, gaining 68 percent of the male vote and 61 percent of the female vote (Klein 1984, 149).
Over the next decade, progress in gaining elected office was slow but steady. By 1973, women held sixteen congressional seats, and by 1983, twenty-one seats, or 5 percent of the total (Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress 1983). Between 1973 and 1983, the number of women in public office tripled. During this same period, a sixfold increase in the number of women mayors in cities with more than 30,000 people also occurred (National Commission on Working Women 1983).
The Gender Gap on Major Issues
After the role imputed to women in putting Eisenhower in the White House, much attention was given to the differences in men's and women's voting patterns and political attitudes. In 1955, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked that there were "far fewer men who were concerned about social reforms" in the days before the Nineteenth Amendment (quoted in Kaledin 1984, 34). During the fifties, women were shown to place greater importance on social welfare legislation and civil rights than men. By the mid to late 1970s, political analysts noted significant differences in attitudes across gender lines. Women were, for example, more likely to favor environmental protection and gun control (National Commission on Working Women 1983).
The presidential and gubernatorial elections of the late seventies and eighties enlarged the concept of a "gender gap" in voting. In 1976, women played a critical role in electing Jimmy Carter, who garnered 51.3 percent of the women's vote but only 49.7 percent of the men's vote. By 1983, women represented 52.8 percent of the registered voters, and clearly provided the margin of difference in close races (Klein 1984, 154). The gender gap in voting shifted toward the Democratic party at this time, reversing a trend favoring Republicans since 1920.
In the presidential election of 1980, only 46 percent of the women cast their ballots for Ronald Reagan while 54 percent of the men did. The split along gender lines in this election was greater than that in any previous race and revived intense discussion of the gender gap (Faludi 1991, 271). Throughout the eighties, Reagan's approval ratings among women consistently lagged behind those among men. For example, during the period 1987-88, 53 percent of the men favored his performance as compared with only 44 percent of the women (Gallup 1988, 279).
In 1988, George Bush won with 50 percent of the female vote and 57 percent of the male vote, according to The New York Times (see table on p. 280). Bush's success was attributable to his having reversed an earlier deficit of some magnitude among women voters by promising to usher in a "kinder, gentler nation" (Faludi 1991, 275).
The Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics reported that in 1992, in 67 percent of the races where exit polls were conducted, a gender gap of at least four percentage points could be identified. In the 1990 and 1992 elections, the races with the largest gender gaps of fourteen to sixteen percentage points tended to be those where Democratic women candidates opposed Republican male candidates (CAWP 1994).
Since the 1980s, women have voted at a rate equal to or surpassing that of men. In the presidential election of 1980, women's turnout was higher than men's for the first time (59.4 percent compared with 59.1 percent). While the shift was slower to take place in non-presidential elections, since 1986, women have had a higher turnout in these as well. This electoral involvement, however, has taken place in the context of a two-decade-long decline in overall turnout on the part of all Americans:
The turnout rate among women, once below that of men, is now higher than that of males. This should not be taken to mean that the early lag in turnout among women, attributed to non-transmission of the norm of voting to women, has completely disappeared. Women vote at a higher rate today than men, not because they are voting in greater numbers than before but because the turnout rate among females has declined at a slower rate than among males (Gant and Luttbeg 1991, 103)
Political scientists have identified three dramatic electoral changes since the 1960s: a decline in partisanship and the significance of political parties; a decline in political participation, especially voting; and a decline in political trust and the belief that the individual has some influence over government (Gant and Luttbeg 1991, 21). Within this context, it gives somewhat less satisfaction to note, as these authors do, that women will shortly constitute a permanent majority of the American electorate.
The accompanying tables drawn from the "Fact Sheets" produced by the Center for the American Woman and Politics indicate the reality of the contemporary gender gap. This gap surfaces in voting behavior, party identification, evaluations of performances of recent presidents, and attitudes toward various public policy issues (1994). According to CAWP, women are less militaristic; more supportive of programs of health care, gun control, and the environment; and more likely to favor government efforts to achieve racial equality. Nevertheless, some analysts believe that when all factors are taken into consideration, women still do not "act politically as if they were unified on the basis of shared interests" (Sears and Huddy 1990, 252).
From the standpoint of participation in voting and the holding of elected positions, however, women have made real progress. Women hold increased numbers of political offices at both the state and national levels. Between 1975 and 1992, women increased their numbers in elective offices from 4 percent to 6 percent in the United States Congress, from 10 percent to 18 percent in statewide elective positions, and from 8 percent to 18 percent in state legislatures.
Nevertheless, with politics devalued and the electorate alienated, women's recent political strides may simply be another example of success in an arena whose stature is on the decline. This phenomenon has been seen historically in the depression of wage levels and status of professions as significant numbers of women enter previously highly paid occupations. In discussing "breakthroughs" for women into non-traditional areas of work in recent years, Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, notes that this trend still exists today: "... when women start to dominate the field, the pay goes down and the prestige will go down" ("Women's Work" 1995).
While the reasons generally cited as explanations for the decline of politics (e.g., Vietnam, Watergate) have little to do with women directly, the question of what the future holds for American political life must concern all citizens. The tables on pages 281-83 describe slow but steady progress toward a fuller scope for female citizenship. Given the challenges that lie ahead, it is difficult to see how a positive common future can be built without increased levels of overall citizen engagement. Perhaps the greatest political reform women could contribute in the future would be an effort to return disaffected citizens to the voting process, the lifeblood of the democratic way of life.
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Margaret Smith Crocco is assistant professor in the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Della Barr Brooks is the school programs coordinator for Historic Hudson Valley and a doctoral student in the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University.