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Taking the Next “Step” for Progress: Reflections on Seneca Falls

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – Declaration of Sentiments, July 19, 1848

Something remarkable happened 166 years ago. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men gathered for a convention in upstate New York. They assembled for the first recorded women’s conference, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and made history.

Drawing upon the abolitionist movement, the Declaration of Independence and the Quaker religious tradition, the 100 delegates drafted, debated, and signed an incredible document. The Declaration of Sentiments, the ultimate product of the Convention, eloquently articulated principles of equality and equitable representation we hold dear. Even today, in the 21st Century, the declaration endures as an aspirational statement for democracies and inspirational statement for women across the world.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention and pioneer for women’s suffrage, observed that the Declaration "will start women thinking, and men too; and when men and women think about a new question, the first step in progress is taken." As we commemorate this consequential “first step,” it is time for us to ponder the “new question.” Structural barriers to parity are often overlooked in the public dialogue surrounding women’s representation. But they are precisely the type of “new question” Elizabeth Cady Stanton would call upon us to consider as we seek to extend the “progress” started at Seneca Falls. 

As we explain in detail in our State of Women's Representation 2013-2014 report, America’s electoral structure constitutes an obstacle to women achieving parity in elected office. Voluminous academic research has reached a definite conclusion: multi-member districts enable women to reach higher levels of representation. In this regard, America’s use of winner-take-all, single-member districts makes it more difficult to achieve representation that reflects the gender diversity of the public. Adopting a fair representation voting system- that is, American forms of proportional representation in multi-member districts -would help women achieve greater representation.

Fair representation voting would address the inherent biases in the political system that inhibit women from running for office.  Yet it is also critical to address biases in the legislative practices and procedures of many chambers. Women’s caucuses help achieve this goal. Women’s caucuses provide female legislators with critical support and networking opportunities, which can be indispensable in male-dominated legislative bodies. From a public policy perspective, women’s caucuses formulate policies to improve women’s well-being, and thus help women outside the legislature. Women’s caucuses can also identify and recommend women for leadership positions in legislative bodies. Finally, women’s caucuses can advocate for changes to procedural rules, including the times of floor debates and votes and restrictions on telecommunication, which hinder women from serving effectively in public office.

To continue on the “progress” started in Seneca Falls, political parties must adopt rules that prioritize the recruitment and election of women candidates and assist women candidates with fundraising and other aspects of campaigning for elected office. Representation 2020 has identified four broad party rules (dialogue with training groups, gender parity task forces, internal accountability, and incentives to increase recruitment) that serve as a starting place for parties. Leadership in the Democratic and Republican Parties have recently indicated the importance of promoting women’s leadership, and we encourage them to examine our proposals closely. 

At the Seneca Falls Convention, Lucia Mott remarked, “the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for securing to women of equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.” Ultimately, the adoption of fair representation voting, active women’s caucuses, new party rules, and the other measures in Representation 2020's parity pledge would help ensure the “speedy success” of Mott’s, and our, cause. 

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