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Advancement of Women: Making Big Strides, Still Room to Grow

  • Shayne Smith

    Shayne Smith

Advancement of Women: Making Big Strides, Still Room to Grow

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.  Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” – Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of that amendment. What started in 1878 as a movement to allow women the right to vote eventually succeeded when, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the proposed Nineteenth Amendment. If you are keeping score at home, the U.S. consisted of 36 states in 1920.  Formally, the Nineteenth Amendment was certified as the law of the land on August 26, 1920.

From there, change came quickly – depending upon how one defines “quickly,” as there seems to be some wiggle room in such a definition.  If one measures time as an anthropologist, there is cause for celebration.  If one measures time by 2020 standards, change has not been rapid enough.  While great strides have been made when it comes to the advancement of women’s rights and equality in the poltical arena, there is still much to do.  Let’s review a few facts to help understand how far we have come in political opportunities for women, and how far we still have to go. 

Specifically, let us consider the advancement of women as it relates to elected federal offices, starting with Congress.

The first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin in 1916.  Which means she was elected before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  How?  Well, her state had passed a referendum in 1914 giving equal voting rights to women.  She ran as a “progressive Republican” and won the at-large seat, allowing her to serve in the House of Representatives for – Montana.

Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?  Congresswoman Rankin served two terms (1917-1919 and 1941-1943).  Another distinction she owns is reflective of her strong pacifist beliefs.  She is the only member of Congress to have voted against resolutions approving U.S. involvement in both World War I (the resolution passed 373-50) and World War II (the resolution, introduced the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, passed 470-1; she later voted for war against Germany a few days later; even later, she protested the Vietnam War in 1968 when she was 87).

One other historical item:  Guess how many women Montana has sent to Washington for seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate since Congresswoman Rankin in 1919 and 1941?  Zero.  Still, they did send the first.  Just not much in the way of follow through.  Look, I’ve been to Montana.  Twice.  Recently.  There are women there.  I’ve seen them. Come on Big Sky, get with the program.

But let’s move the timeline forward.  In 1960, the 86th Congress consisted of 19 women – 2 in the Senate and 17 in the House.

In 2020, 127 women are serving in Congress – 25 in the Senate and 102 in the House.

Sixty years of progress, eh?  Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the good news is that opportunities have been coming faster in recent years. 

Which brings us to ye olde Executive Branch and two noteworthy examples, including Geraldine Ferraro – the first female nominee of a major party presidential ticket.  Selected by Democratic Party nominee Walter Mondale (Jimmy Carter’s vice-president), Congresswoman Ferraro was in the midst of serving her third two-year term in Congress when she was chosen as Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1984 election against incumbent Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Congresswoman Ferraro was from New York.  She pulled no punches and had no hesitancy in speaking her mind.  As mentioned in the book Wake Us When It’s Over, her overall performance as a candidate had been observed by more than one Democratic politician as “one Mondale could well copy.”

But it was not meant to be.  Reagan/Bush won in a landslide.  The Mondale/Ferraro ticket only carried Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.  However, from the near shattering of that glass ceiling in 1984, it was a quick (?) jump to the campaign of 2008.

Senator John McCain was the presumptive Republican nominee for president when he selected Governor Sarah Palin from Alaska as his running mate.  McCain famously enjoyed his reputation as a maverick.  When his advisers indicated that selecting Palin as his VP would be both high-risk and high-reward, he allegedly replied “You shouldn’t have told me that.  I’ve been a risk taker all of my life.”[1]  Ultimately, however, the 2008 election went to then-Senator Barack Obama and his choice for vice-president, Joe Biden.

The 2008 election was noteworthy for another reason:  Hillary Clinton.  Then Senator Clinton fought a highly competitive contest for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.  Senator Obama won 33 contests to Senator Clinton’s 23.  In the popular vote, he held a slim lead of 48.1% over her mark of 48.0%.  The main figure of import, though, was the delegate count, with Obama at 2,272.5 and Clinton at 1,978.  Such was the respect she earned during the Democratic primary races, though, that upon winning the presidency, Barack Obama named Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Following Obama’s two terms, we come to 2016 and the historic Democratic nominee for president of the United States:  Hillary Clinton.  We all know how 2016 turned out.  One glass ceiling was shattered (winning the nomination itself) but one still remains unbroken.

And now 2020 comes to us with a pandemic and thousands of questions with no readily available answers.  Still, elections must go on and a series of further firsts came to life with the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice-president.  As noted on the joebiden.com website, she is the first Black and Indian American woman on a major party’s presidential ticket.

Since 1984, the country has made strides in the nominees for the executive branch, most recently in the last three presidential elections.  It gives me a very specific hope:  That having women in such elected roles becomes as normal as the now routine acceptance of women on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Empowering Women – Brighter Futures, Better Business

While we see clear examples of women advancement and achievements at the highest levels of government, we know that we need to continue to work to build momentum for women in all areas.  At Acxiom, we are committed to creating an equal and diverse culture, and we fully support the advancement of women.  Our Women LEAD program is committed to bringing about awareness and development opportunities for our female associates – and I am very proud to be an executive sponsor of this initiative.  Please join us for our Oct. 8 session: Empowering Women – Brighter Futures, Better Business.


[1] From the 2010 book “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin