By Cynthia Richie Terrell on July 16, 2021
A Representational Crisis
The United States Senate is an anomaly in American democracy. Following Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s that affected all other legislative bodies in the country, the Senate is the only legislature in the nation in which representatives do not represent an equal number of people. Senators represent states on an equal basis, with two seats per state regardless of population. While there are good reasons to be concerned about what this means for representative governance, it also creates an opportunity. We can work together to make the U.S. Senate truly reflect the gender diversity of the United States.
Representation of women in the U.S. Senate dropped from an all-time high of 26 in 2020 to only 24 women in the 117th Congress. Of the 1,994 individuals who have served as senators since 1789, only 58 (2.9%) have been women; only 32 (1.6%) have been people of color; and only two Black women have been elected to the body. Without intentional action, women, and women of color in particular, will continue to be underrepresented in the United States Senate for generations.
Balancing the Senate
However, addressing this representational crisis is possible. Change could even happen this decade through political will and collective action by political parties and gatekeepers. In 2028, for example, any senator up for reelection who is of the same gender as the other senator from their state would be urged to retire and only candidates of another gender would get party backing and endorsements to run. Both the Republican and Democratic parties would benefit electorally from adopting this rule and supporting qualified women’s candidacies. Party leaders, donors, and PACs could harness the energy for equality and become champions in the challenge to reach gender balance in the U.S. Senate.
A bolder approach would be to embrace the value of balanced gender representation in the U.S Constitution with an amendment to be implemented by the 2028 elections. This transformative amendment could state that no gender could hold both Senate seats in any given state. Staggered Senate races in the following election cycles would ensure that there would be gender balance in the U.S. Senate by 2033.
While amending the Constitution may seem like a heavy lift, there is a rich history of using the amendment process to advance democratic principles and equality. Examples of this tradition include the 15th amendment, which enabled Black men to vote; the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators; the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote; and the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. These amendments were enacted by those in power on behalf of those lacking power, to expand who had a seat at the table.
Over the next month, GOTB will be taking a look at the importance of women governors, and examining the challenges and opportunities 20+ years of Barbara Lee Family Foundation research shows women face when running to be CEO of a state. We are also celebrating the women who have blazed new trails to the governor’s office, and taking inspiration from their examples. Among those remarkable women:
Carolyn Shelton – the first woman to act as governor in the United States: Served February 27, 1909 – March 1, 1909, Oregon
Carolyn Shelton served as Acting Governor of Oregon for one weekend when the incoming governor, George Earle Chamberlain, was ill and could not assume office early after the outgoing governor was elected to the Senate.
Soledad Chávez de Chacón – the first woman to be acting governor with substantial duties: Served June 21, 1924 – July 5, 1924, New Mexico
Soledad Chávez de Chacón was the Secretary of State in New Mexico from 1923 – 1926, and she was the first Hispanic woman elected to statewide office in the country. In 1924, she held the powers of governor in New Mexico for two weeks while the state’s governor, James F. Hinkle, attended the Democratic Convention (the Lieutenant Governor, Jose A. Baca had died earlier that year, making the Secretary of State next in line for the role).
Nellie Tayloe Ross – one of the first women elected governor in the United States: Served January 5, 1925 – January 3, 1927, Wyoming
Nellie Tayloe Ross’s husband William Ross was elected Wyoming Governor in 1922. After he died in October of 1924, Wyoming Secretary of State Frank Lucas took the mantle and served until a special election in November 1924. Ross was nominated as the Democratic candidate, and she won 55% of the vote, beating her Republican opponent and taking office on January 5, 1925 as the first woman governor of the United States.
Miriam Ferguson – one of the first women elected governor in the United States: Served January 20, 1925 – January 18, 1927 and January 17, 1933 – January 15, 1935, Texas
While Miriam “Ma” Ferguson’s husband James Ferguson was in his second term as Texas governor in 1917, he was indicted and impeached. As a result, in 1924, James could not appear on the ballot for governor. Miriam ran in the Democratic primary for the seat and was elected to office in the general election—she took office just a few weeks after Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming.
Ella Grasso — the first woman elected governor who had not been the spouse or widow of a former governor: Served January 8, 1975 – December 31, 1980, Connecticut
Ella Grasso was a former assistant director of research for the War Manpower Commission of Connecticut, as well as a member of the Connecticut General Assembly in the mid-1950s. She also served as Connecticut Secretary of State and chaired the Democratic State Platform Committee before being elected to U.S. Congress in 1970 and again in 1972. She defeated an incumbent governor in her home state in 1974, becoming the first woman to serve as Connecticut’s governor, and the first elected woman governor who had not been married to a governor.
“Holding elected office is so important because you have a seat at the table. The information that women bring to the conversation is so valuable today – and so needed – even with all that we’re juggling,” says Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig. “Who better to communicate the issues that we’re facing than a woman.”
The New Hampshire Women’s Foundation’s recently released “Gender Matters” report shows that women comprise just 41% of total elected city officials on school boards, city councils/boards of alderpersons, and mayor’s office across the state’s thirteen cities. The data was released as city filing periods begin to open across the state.
“I hope that, not just candidates and women that want to run for office, pay attention to this, but also that voters look at this,” says Crystal Paradis, Director of Strategic Communications & Community Engagement at the NH Women’s Foundation. “The statistics show, the more women and more diversity in general that are on any governing board, the better the decisions are.”
This report follows another issued in March of 2021 that showed similar statistics for New Hampshire women in town government – just 37% of whom were women. As InDepthNH.org’s previous reporting detailed, this data comes on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote for most women. Additionally, 2021 marks 150 years since New Hampshire women obtained limited suffrage to participate in school board governance.
When the Gender Matters data was compiled in 2020, there were just three cities with women serving as the elected mayor – representing 23% of the total elected mayors in the state. Since then, Rochester’s first woman Mayor, Caroline McCarley, announced she would step down before the end of her term, and Councilor Olivia Zink was chosen to serve as Franklin’s interim mayor.
- They earn less, due to the gender wage gap.
- They have less education, based on how many women earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.
- They are less represented, considering the number of women serving in the state legislature.
- They lead less often, based on how many women are in managerial and professional occupations.
The Salt Lake Tribune now has dug into these numbers going back as many years as data were available, to see how persistent these trends have been — and whether they are changing over time.
Fact check: Utah’s gender wage gap
The Beehive State has had one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country for more than three decades.
Utah’s gap has shrunk over the years, but it’s remained one of the biggest since at least 1989, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“Everybody struggles with the wage gap, but in Utah, we struggle more,” Madsen said.
As of the beginning of July, Biden had nominated or announced his intent to nominate 30 jurists to the federal bench. Twenty-three — about 77 percent — of those nominees are women, and 17 — about 57 percent — are women of color, according to an analysis done by Demand Justice.
During Donald Trump’s one-term presidency, 234 of his federal judicial picks were confirmed and 56 of them, or about 24 percent, were women. Though he nominated a slightly higher percentage of women jurists than his Republican predecessors, Trump’s picks still skewed White and male when compared with those of Democratic presidents, according to the Pew Research Center.
Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served, had 329 federal judges confirmed over two terms and 138 of them, or about 42 percent, were women, the Demand Justice analysis showed.
Demand Justice is a group that formed after the 2016 election, when Republican voters were motivated by Trump’s promise to nominate conservative judges and justices. It aims to encourage Democrats to vote on the same issue and keep public attention focused on Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman to fill any Supreme Court vacancy.
Trump delivered on his campaign pledge to nominate conservative jurists, installing three Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — and more than 200 federal judges over his four-year term, reshaping the federal trial and appeals courts. When Trump left office in January, more than a quarter of all federal judges were his nominees.
Currently, about two-thirds of the federal judiciary are men and one-third are women, according to an American Constitution Society analysis of data collected by the Federal Judicial Center.
This is significant for two reasons. First, Adams is likely to become only the second Black mayor. Second, many Black leaders expressed their fear that RCV would split the Black vote and that none of the Black candidates, of which there were several choices, would win. That didn’t happen, and the research shows that Black candidates who run against other Black candidates have higher win rates in RCV elections. Simply by running, nontraditional candidates like me can inspire voters like the women I met in Harlem into voting. That gives us a greater chance of winning. too. London Breed became the first Black female mayor of San Francisco and Jean Quan became the first Asian female mayor of Oakland in an RCV system, despite odds stacked heavily against them and political machines working for others.
This election was a blow to voters who hoped it would shatter the glass ceiling in New York. Yet Kathryn Garcia and I were two of the top three candidates on primary night. In the post-election punditry and in conversation with residents, I hear a lot of RCV bashing. Yet 29 women of all races are now poised to enter the 51-seat City Council thanks, in part, to RCV. Currently there are only 14!
Doubts about RCV are not new. Many elected leaders of color vigorously oppose it. In fact, many Black leaders I admire have been wary of ranked-choice voting and even sued to prevent its implementation in this election. Critics have raised concerns about voters of color being confused about the system or ranking only one candidate, which denies them political voice in an instant runoff.
Make no mistake, this election was unprecedented: From covid-19 to the first June primary (it’s usually in September) and an inept Board of Elections (BOE) riddled with cronyism, it was a painful primary. From refusing to hire experts to help administer the new computer system for RCV, to the lunacy of sharing results without having counted all ballots, the BOE deserves castigation and badly needs reform. Jurisdictions implementing RCV elsewhere should commit resources to voter outreach and education well before an election and focus their education efforts on the elderly and communities of color. Online resources are inadequate with a persistent digital divide.
Yes, it is still difficult for women, particularly women of color, to win citywide office in New York and statewide races around the country. And there can be no question that our democracy is in peril. Sixty percent of Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” and too many states are adopting sweeping voter suppression laws predicated on a lie that voter fraud is real. What is at stake this year, notes Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is “the very future of the full citizenship and dignity of Black people in this country.”
But alarm bells over RCV miss the point. Making it easier to vote, educating voters and encouraging a new pipeline of diverse candidates who are not beholden to powerful interests are the tools that will guarantee our democracy.
The women's rights movement in the United States was launched 170 ago at the first American woman’s rights convention, a prominent two-day event at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention’s organizers were all Quakers, with the exception of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton had met another main organizer, Lucretia Mott, at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, where they were told that women were not allowed to speak or vote and had to sit in a roped-off gallery.
After this experience, Mott and Stanton decided it was time for a women’s rights convention to be held. Together with three other women who were also active in the abolitionist movement, they quickly organized the convention and advertised it on July 11, 1848 in the Seneca County Courier. On July 19, the first day of the convention -- which was open only to women -- Stanton made her first public speech:
We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws test against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute-books, deeming them as a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century.…
She also read the Declaration of Sentiments, whose language was closely modeled after the Declaration of Independence. It documented the injustices that women faced and was a call to action for women across the U.S.
The second day of the convention was open to men, and drew many leading activists including African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances was signed and adopted, along with 12 resolutions calling for specific equal rights for women. The most controversial resolution, and the only to not pass unanimously, concerned the enfranchisement of women. Mott argued against it, while Douglass spoke passionately in favor. After a lengthy debate, it passed narrowly.
The resolution caused the convention to be shrouded in ridicule, and some backers of the women’s rights movement withdrew support. However, the convention had an undeniable impact, and was followed two weeks later by a larger meeting in Rochester. In the subsequent years, national conventions were held annually. As Frederick Douglass said in his “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
It is sobering to realize that the grievances listed in the Declaration and the issues addressed by the resolutions have yet to be solved, more than a century and a half later. Women are still far from parity in government, and women’s rights continue to be attacked at all levels of government. The Seneca Falls Convention was a major milestone in the lengthy battle for women’s rights.
One hundred seventy years ago, women activists ignited a national conversation and movement. It is up to us to commemorate their contributions and to continue the fight.