Women in the United States

Sarah E Brewer. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams, who at the time was attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where delegates were beginning to craft the laws for this new nation. In her letter she urged, “In the new Code of Laws … I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could” (McGlen et al. 2005, 1). Unfortunately, Mrs. Adams was not successful in her efforts to include women’s rights in the early laws at the nation’s founding, and American women had to wait roughly 150 years for the right to vote.

The first women’s rights convention in the United States was held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In attendance were many men and women who were active in the movement to abolish slavery in America and were seeking to outline a new platform for women’s equality. The conferees, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, as well as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, based on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. This declaration stipulated that “all men and women were created equal” and called for women’s suffrage. At the time, many of those in attendance believed this call for women’s right to vote was too radical to be included in the declaration, but at the urging of both Stanton and Douglass, the resolution remained in the document (McGlen et al. 2005).

The First Wave: Campaign for Women’s Suffrage

The early women’s suffrage movement developed out of efforts by women to help abolish slavery in America. Many suffragettes linked the two efforts and believed the eradication of slavery would bring the enfranchisement of women. During the years leading up to the Civil War, suffragettes such as Stanton and Mott, as well as Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, lobbied the national government and communicated to the public through articles in magazines and newspapers about extending the right to vote to women. However, after the Civil War, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended the vote only to former male slaves, as the women’s rights activists were told, “Now is the Negro’s hour.” African American and white women who had worked tirelessly through abolition groups were furious that women’s suffrage was sacrificed at this critical time in the nation’s history. As a result, for the first time the word “male” was introduced into the U.S. Constitution (McGlen et al. 2005).

In response to the passage of the Civil Rights Amendments, two groups were founded to advance women’s suffrage. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Susan B. Anthony, advocated a national strategy that focused on the passage of a federal constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA), a more conservative organization led by Lucy Stone, began to pursue a state-by-state strategy to enfranchise women. Although NWSA had a strong national presence, with a few members and highly visible, professional leadership, AWSA had strong state chapters that were active in their own states as well as engaged in work that organized around regional initiatives.

Roughly 20 years later, with little movement on either front, both organizations combined to create the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In addition to the activists who had been members of the two groups, NAWSA reached out to new women who were involved in two other social movements, the temperance movement, which sought to criminalize the manufacture and sale of alcohol, as well as members of local women’s clubs that had developed across the country. These clubs were diverse, ranging from book clubs to civic organizations dedicated to volunteering on local community issues, and they were connected under the umbrella organization of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). The GFWC and the women’s temperance movement organizations provided a new infrastructure to communicate to a broader range of women throughout the country to advance the cause of women’s suffrage.

NAWSA began its efforts with a focus on a state-by-state strategy and had early success in achieving the franchise for women in the states of Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming in the late 1890s. These efforts stalled, however, and they were unable to add additional states until 1910. In 1912, Alice Paul was tapped to head the NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, which focused on lobbying Congress for a national amendment. When faced with resistance from leaders within the NAWSA, Paul resigned from the committee and started her own group, the Congressional Union. She was convinced that a national strategy would be successful and moved forward in her efforts of lobbying Congress and protesting the White House itself, calling on President Wilson to do more to advance women’s right to vote. In 1916, after several defeats by state referenda, NAWSA’s leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, teamed with Paul to develop a plan that would combine the state and federal efforts. This combined campaign resulted in the successful passage of the 19th Amendment granting all U.S. women suffrage in 1920.

The Second Wave: Women’s Equality

After achieving the right to vote, women’s organized efforts to advance women’s political, social, and economic equality were largely dormant. The franchise provided women with an opportunity to come together around a defining issue, and subsequent organizing became more fractured and diverse in its focus and agenda. Not until the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement for equality for African Americans and student organizing against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, did women come together again to organize for their equal rights. As a result, similar to the earlier period, the second wave of women’s rights activism for gender equality emerged from efforts to advance the equality of African Americans in the United States.

In 1961, President Kennedy established the Commission on the Status of Women to examine women’s access to and experience in education and employment. The commission issued a report in 1963 that lead to the passage of the Equal Pay Act, an effort to ensure that women received the same wage for the same work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was subsequently passed prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. And to ensure the enforcement of the law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was set up to monitor complaints of discrimination.

In 1966, at a conference for the Women in the States’ Status Commissions Washington, D.C., a small group of men and women, including noted women’s rights activist Betty Friedan, discovered that EEOC commissioners were largely ignoring discrimination complaints filed by women. In frustration, the group founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW was the leading women’s rights organization of the 1960s and 1970s and the group worked tirelessly to pursue social, political, and economic equality for women. In her book Governing NOW: Grassroots Activism in the National Organization for Women, Maryann Barakso argues, “In NOW’s 1966 ‘Invitation to Join’ the group’s founders … noted that the group’s formation was just one element of a ‘world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our borders.’” (Barakso 2004, 14-15). The new organization was formed in a climate defined by large-scale social change and became the principal advocate for women’s rights.

During this period, NOW and other women’s rights organizations successfully advocated for national policy that changed women’s access to education and equality in the workplace. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protected women students from sex discrimination in admission, protected them from sexual harassment by faculty and fellow students, and required that universities that receive money from the federal government provide equal scholarships for women students. The most noted result of Title IX was its effect on college women’s participation in university athletics. Because many student scholarships are provided through students’ participation in collegiate sports, Title IX required that educational institutions provide an equal number of athletic scholarships to women students. In addition, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected women against discrimination in hiring for employment and led to the eradication of sex-segregating job listings. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibited discrimination in the employment of women who were pregnant or who could become pregnant and “required employers to treat pregnancy like any other physical condition” (McGlen 2005, 157). Finally, the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993 provided men and women with the opportunity to take time off to care for newborn children and to tend to sick children and relatives without the fear of losing their jobs.

Although education and workforce issues were important policy areas during the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s, no other issue attracted as much controversy and became as defining as abortion. Up until the 1960s, abortion law had primarily been regulated as a medical practice by the states and, as a result, women’s access to abortion services varied depending in which state they lived. In 1959, the American Law Institute suggested legal changes to state laws that would decriminalize abortion to save the life of the mother, if the child had severe birth defects, and in the case of rape or incest.

The abortion issue became formally tied to the women’s rights movement in 1967 when NOW called for abortion to be legal in all cases in the Bill of Rights it adopted at its first annual meeting. Karen O’Connor, in her book No Neutral Ground: Abortion Politics in the Age of Absolutes, argues “This resolution marked the beginning of the formal and informal link between the women’s rights movement and the movement to achieve abortion rights and underscored its transition from a medical issue to a political one for many women” (O’Connor 1996, 30). From this point forward, women’s rights organizations became united with organized efforts to provide access to abortion services in the United States, so much so that an organization’s position on abortion became the deciding factor of whether or not it was a women’s rights organization. For example, the more than 200 women’s group members of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which includes groups as diverse as national membership organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women to local groups such as the Utah Women’s Alliance for Building Community, either worked actively to advance women’s reproductive rights or agreed not to work against these efforts. The relationship between the women’s rights organizations and the pro-choice movement in the United States is a defining feature of both efforts.

In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision that decriminalized abortion laws across the country and invalidated abortion laws in all but four states. The 7 to 2 decision stated that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy was more important than the state’s right to regulate abortion. After the Roe v. Wade decision, several federal laws were passed that gave states the opportunity to regulate women’s access to abortion and to restrict the federal government’s support of abortion services. One of these laws, the Hyde Amendment in 1976 (named after the member of Congress who sponsored the legislation, Henry Hyde from Illinois) prevented federal money that was used to pay for health insurance for the nation’s poorest citizens from being used to pay for abortions. This amendment significantly affected women of color in the United States, who disproportionately relied on publicly funded health care programs and as a result drastically limited their access to reproductive health services.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade mobilized citizens on both sides of the issue and led to new organizations, such as the pro-choice group National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and the pro-life group National Right to Life Committee. In addition to citizen mobilization on both sides of the issue, the two political parties in the United States polarized around the abortion issue. In 1972, before Roe v. Wade, both the Republican and Democratic parties had no platform on abortion rights. By 1980, the Democratic Party was the pro-choice party and the Republican Party was the pro-life party.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the public debate about abortion was fought through national elections as a major issue in presidential campaigns and in state legislatures, and it continued to be a subject before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decisions in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania (1992) did not overturn women’s legally protected access to abortion services but significantly affected the extent to which states could regulate that access. The legal reasoning shifted from women’s rights to privacy to a new “undue burden” standard whereby states could regulate women’s access to abortion so long as the restriction did not place an “undue burden” on the woman seeking these services. As a result, restrictions such as 24-hour waiting periods and parental consent were upheld as constitutional (O’Connor 1996).

Abortion rights were a significant part of the efforts by women’s organizations to push for political equality. In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s rights organizations also focused their efforts on passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. The first article reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the account of sex” (Mansbridge 1985). The ERA passed the Congress in 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. In the first year, 28 states ratified the amendment and it appeared that it would move quickly to secure the 32 states needed for ratification. However, the structure of women’s rights groups concentrated resources and leadership in the national organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and with centralized national membership organizations and weak institutional infrastructure in state and local communities, women’s rights organizations struggled to communicate to local women about the positive impact the ERA would have on their lives, and this prevented them from successfully lobbying state legislatures to ratify the amendment.

In contrast, groups opposed to the ERA’s passage were better able to organize on a state-by-state basis and soon their efforts began to slow the ratification of the amendment by additional states. In 1975, conservative activist Phyllis Schafly formed the Eagle Forum, with the sole purpose of defeating the ERA. Building on a network of churches and local conservative groups she successfully redefined the ERA from a women’s equality measure to a reckless initiative that would result in social policies antithetical to American values, including coed bathrooms, government-funded abortions, women’s mandatory participation in military combat, and gay marriage. Ultimately, although pro-ERA groups succeeded in extending the deadline for ratification, NOW and its allies failed to get enough states to ratify the ERA, and it was defeated on June 30, 1982.

In her book Why We Lost the ERA, Jane Mansbridge argues that although the ERA failed, there were several important results of the 10-year struggle. The campaign for the ERA kept the importance of women’s rights on the public’s consciousness for 10 years; as a result, the language of women’s rights and women’s equality became familiar to Americans across the country. In addition, organizing for and against the ERA brought countless numbers of women into the political process on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, Mansbridge argues that the ERA movement led to Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984. Although the Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket lost the election, it was the first time a woman had been on a major political party’s national presidential ticket.

Before 1984, only two women had run for the presidential nomination of the Republican and Democratic Parties. In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith ran for the Republican nomination against Senator Barry Goldwater, who lost the national election to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide defeat. She was first appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940 after the death of her husband, Congressman Clyde Smith. She went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948 and became the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate. Her presidential campaign in 1964 made her the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president by the two major political parties. Following Chase Smith’s historic bid for the presidency, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1972. Chisholm was elected to Congress in 1968 and was the first African American woman to serve in the House of Representatives. Her historic campaign for the presidency in 1972 included a field of 13 Democratic candidates and resulted in the nomination of George McGovern, who lost the election against incumbent Richard M. Nixon, also by a landslide.

In 1980, during the final push for ratification of the ERA, former NOW president Eleanor Smeal coined the term “gender gap” to describe the greater support of women voters for the Democratic Party. The gender gap measures the difference between the support a presidential candidate receives from men and women. The identification of women’s support for the Democratic Party was a political move on the part of Smeal and other women’s rights activists to pressure the Democratic Party to support women’s issues and advance women’s candidacies. Jo Freeman (1986) , in her article “The Political Culture of the Democratic and Republican Parties,” argues that the way party activists achieve power in the Democratic Party is by demonstrating that they represent an important political constituency. In this case, Smeal and other women’s rights activists made the case to the Democratic Party that they represented the majority of Democratic voters—women—and used their numbers to achieve Ferraro’s nomination in 1984. As a result, Mansbridge (1985) argues that the ERA raised the visibility of the political power of liberal women in the Democratic Party and through their efforts they were able to secure the nomination of the first woman on a national presidential ticket.

The gender gap continues to play a large part in American politics. Since the identification of the gender gap in the 1980s, political scientists as well as political professionals have examined the relationship between gender and voter choice. Kauffman and Petrocik (1997) found that despite the dominant perception that women vote more for Democratic candidates than men, male voters have actually moved away from the Democratic Party over time and have become increasingly more Republican. Examining presidential elections since 1952, the researchers found that women were not more likely to vote Democratic in the 1980 election than they were in the 1976 campaign; however, men were gradually voting more Republican. In fact, a majority of women voted for President Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign and the gender gap referred to the fact that more women than men supported President Carter. It was not until the election of President Clinton in 1992 that a majority of women voted for the Democratic candidate for president.

More recent scholarship on the gender gap has found great variations between women voters and their party identification. For example, African American women are strong supporters of the Democratic Party and more than 90 percent of African American women have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the past few elections. In addition, married women are less likely to support Democratic candidates than unmarried women, and younger women are more likely to support Democrats than middle-aged women. These important differences between women voters on their party identification and policy preferences continue to be important in shaping national elections. For example, in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, key voting blocks for candidates from both political parties included “soccer moms,” “waitress moms,” and “security moms.” In the elections of 1992, the media and political campaigns identified the soccer mom as a voter targeted by both the Republican and Democratic candidate. The soccer mom was a reference to more affluent suburban women with children. The waitress mom was a type of voter who generally made less money than her soccer mom counterpart and in the 2000 election was concerned with economic issues and education for her children. Finally, in 2004, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the presidential campaigns were paying particular attention to security moms, women who were above all else concerned about the safety and security of their families.

Recruiting and supporting women candidates became increasingly more important to women’s rights organizations after the failure of the ERA. The ERA effort of the 1970s and 1980s depended on the votes of elected officials, both houses of Congress, where women made up just 4 percent of the members, as well as state legislators, roughly 13 percent of whom were women. As a result, many women’s organizations turned their attention to ways in which they could increase the number of women running for elected office. As early as 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded to help train and elect women candidates to Congress. In addition, in 1974, the Women’s Campaign Fund (WCF), the first women’s political action committee (PAC), was founded to help raise money for pro-choice women candidates. In addition to fund-raising on behalf of women candidates, WCF also provided training for women candidates.

The women’s PACs founded in the mid-1970s were bipartisan and worked to elect both Democratic and Republican women who supported women’s equality. In 1985, a new women’s PAC was formed to provide resources specifically to pro-choice Democratic women candidates, marking a turn away from the bipartisan efforts of women’s groups in the 1970s. EMILY’s List was founded by Ellen Malcolm and a small group of women with the sole purpose of raising money to support pro-choice Democratic women candidates for Congress. After the defeat of senatorial candidate Harriet Woods of Missouri in 1984, several women active in Democratic politics decided Woods’ inability to raise money was one of the reasons for her loss. EMILY’s List stands for “Early Money is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise),” noting that if women candidates could receive early funding from a group of committed supporters it could increase their viability as candidates and attract additional funding and political support.

Secrets to Success: Emily’s List and Funding Women Candidates

EMILY’s List is a partisan organization organized around the principle of a national membership, an approach to donor solicitation that was revolutionary at the time of its founding. Traditionally, candidates’ fund-raising efforts for personal contributions by supporters was often limited to individuals who lived in their state or district whom they would represent in the legislature if they were elected. EMILY’s List, however, reached out to women across the nation, who would not be directly represented by the women running for office, and made them a part of the women candidates’ campaigns for office. This provided a wealth of untapped donors who were interested in and passionately committed to increasing the number of women in Congress, even if that woman was not their representative. EMILY’s List also found a creative solution to another structural limitation on fund-raising for women candidates. To be a member, an individual contributes $100 to EMILY’s List and pledges to write two additional checks to two women candidates for at least $100. These checks are sent to EMILY’s List, which then sends them out to candidates. The grouping of the small individual checks from women and sent by EMILY’s List to the candidate, known as “bundling,” allowed Ellen Malcolm, founder of EMILY’s List, and members to get around a campaign finance law that limited groups’ contribution to political campaigns to $5,000 per election. As a result, EMILY’s List is able to bundle more money than the $5,000 limit and has risen more than $1 million for some candidates. This approach has been so successful that EMILY’s List is the largest PAC in the United States.

In its first cycle, EMILY’s List succeeded in helping elect Barbara Mikulski to the Senate in 1986. Several Democratic women had been appointed to the Senate after the deaths of their husbands while in office; however, Mikulski was the first Democratic woman elected in her own right. EMILY’s List turned its attention to House races in the 1988 and 1990 cycles and helped elect several new women to Congress. Declared the Year of the Woman in U.S. politics, the election year of 1992 was unprecedented for women in U.S. electoral politics, and EMILY’s List was a significant part of women candidates’ success in that election. During the 1992 election EMILY’s List membership grew by 600 percent from 1990 to more than 23,000 members who raised more than $6.2 million and helped elect five new Democratic women senators and 24 new congresswomen—the largest percentage increase of women in Congress in U.S. history.

Since the 1992 cycle, EMILY’s List has continued to increase its membership, raise more money, and elect more women to Congress, statehouses, and governors’ mansions. To date, EMILY’s List has helped elect 71 members of the House of Representatives, 13 women senators, and 8 women governors. One-third of the candidates supported by EMILY’s List have been women of color, and EMILY’s List has helped elect 11 African-American women and 6 Latinas to Congress. In addition, since 1994, EMILY’s List has implemented training for women candidates on campaign fund-raising and campaign management, developed a campaign corps to train young men and women to work on their candidates’ campaigns, and designed a Women Vote project to mobilize women voters for their candidates.

Women currently make up 16 percent of the U.S. Congress. The current delegation of women in the U.S. House has 71 women members, 50 Democrats and 21 Republicans. In addition, the U.S. Senate has 16 women out of 100 Senators, 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans. The success of EMILY’s List is associated with the uneven distribution of women in each party, and it has provided support for most of the Democratic women currently serving in the Congress. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) became the first woman speaker of the House in the 110th Congress. She is third in line in succession to the presidency after the vice president and is the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the U.S. government. She was the first woman elected to lead a national party in Congress, and she served as House minority leader in the 109th Congress after serving as the Democratic whip.

Under the George W. Bush administration, 6 women served as cabinet secretaries—state, labor, transportation, interior, agriculture, and education—out of 15 total secretaries. The first woman to be appointed to serve in a presidential cabinet was Frances Perkins in 1933, who served as secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Historically, women remained underrepresented in executive-level appointments because of the fact that administrations were unaware of women who were qualified for potential cabinet positions. As a result, since 1976, the Coalition for Women’s Appointments and Women’s Appointment Project, under the auspices of the National Women’s Political Caucus, has organized to provide presidential administrations with the names of qualified women for cabinet-level appointments. For example, the two groups advanced more than 700 names to the Clinton administration in 1992, and all of his female appointees came from this list of names (Dolan, Deckman, and Swers 2007). In addition, both President Clinton and President George W. Bush included women in their inner cabinet; that is, attorney general, secretary of defense, secretary of treasury, and secretary of state, for the first time in the nation’s history. Janet Reno was the first woman appointed as attorney general to head the Justice Department in 1992 under President Clinton. Clinton went on to appoint Madeline Albright as the first woman secretary of state in 1996, and in 2005, Condoleezza Rice was the first African American woman appointed to the same post by President George W. Bush.

The participation of women in state-level politics is mixed. In 2008, women represented 23.7 percent of state legislators across the country; however, the percentage of women in state legislatures greatly varies between the states. For example, 12 states have legislatures that are more than 30 percent women, including Vermont, which is the highest at 37.8 percent. In contrast, 8 states have legislatures with fewer than 15 percent women, including South Carolina, which is the lowest at 8.8 percent (CAWP 2008). Women’s state-level office holding is important to the advancement of women in politics in the United States. Women candidates for Congress are often more successful if they have previously served in state legislatures. State legislative office provides women with experience they can draw on to communicate their issues and agendas to voters in their campaigns for Congress (McGlen et al. 2005). As a result, the fact that the average proportion of women serving in state legislatures has remained steady over the past 15 years has been an increasing concern to women’s rights activists.

Also at the state level, there are currently 9 women governors, and only 26 women have served as governors in U.S. history (CAWP 2008). Gubernatorial office is important because it has been the launching pad for four of the last five U.S. Presidents, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter. And although several notable women have run, the United States has yet to elect a woman president. Robert R. Watson and Ann Gordon, in their book Anticipating Madam President, note that women candidates for executive office, both at the state and national level, face greater difficulty in communicating to voters that they are qualified to lead. This is often due to bias in media coverage and sex-role stereotyping by voters.

Women have run in a national presidential primary in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections. In 2000, Elizabeth Dole, who was elected to the Senate in 2002, ran for the Republican nomination for president in the primary. In addition, Carol Moseley Braun, former U.S. senator and U.S. ambassador, ran for the Democratic nomination for president in the 2004 election. In 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win a primary election in the U.S. and campaigned in every presidential primary and caucus contest for the Democratic nomination for president. Senator Clinton’s success, especially among women voters, was a strong catalyst for Republican presidential candidate John McCain to tap Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate against Democratic rivals Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden. What is important to note about Senator Clinton’s race is that unlike the previous campaigns of Dole and Braun, and even Chase Smith and Chisholm, she was considered one of the strongest candidates in the Democratic Party’s primary field of candidates. This demonstrates that although women continue to be challenged as candidates for executive office, the political climate is changing in such a way that they are now perceived as serious contenders for national leadership.

The question remains why women continue to be underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. Continuing barriers to women’s political participation include the structural factor of incumbency as well as political socialization variables such as ambition. First, incumbency is the glass ceiling for women seeking to run for Congress. In their study of women candidates for Congress, Barbara Palmer and Denis Simon find that “over the last 50 years, incumbent House members have a 95.3 percent success rate” (2006, 36). They argue that incumbent advantage includes the ability for members to communicate to constituents through their congressional office, high name recognition in their districts, and a well-established fund-raising network. In addition, there are very few retirements each election cycle; as a result, often more than 95 percent of the candidates for office are incumbents. The bottom line is that regardless of any other barrier, the power of incumbency is the reason for the slow rate of turnover of membership in the House in general and subsequently the slow climb of women toward equal representation.

In addition to the structural barrier of incumbency, another barrier to women’s political participation is socialization. In their groundbreaking study on women and political ambition, It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox find that women are not as interested in running for office as their male counterparts. The researchers surveyed a potential candidate pool that was made up of men and women working in business, law, education, and politics. They asked this sample of men and women whether they had ever considered running for office and whether those who had thought of running had actually sought public office. What emerged in their study is that men were more likely to have considered running for office—roughly 60 percent of men in the pool said they had considered it compared with 43 percent of women. Of those who had considered running for office, 20 percent of the men compared with 15 percent of the women had actually sought office.

In addition, women themselves do not feel qualified to run for office. Lawless and Fox (2005) found that not only were women more likely to believe they were unqualified to run for office, but they also defined qualification very differently than their male counterparts. Whereas men often discussed their commitment to the community and a vision for the future as the reasons why they are fit to stand for election, women had a higher threshold of specific professional experiences that they used to define whether they were ready to run. Of the men and women in the study who believed they were qualified to run for office, 80 percent of the women compared with 40 percent of the men cited their professional accomplishments as the basis for their qualifications. In addition, women were more likely to stress the need for previous experience and expertise on the specific policy issues affecting the community than their male counterparts (Fox and Lawless 2005). As a result, women’s own standards regarding qualifications to run for office are stricter and based on more specific professional experience than men’s standards. This in turn leads to fewer women believing they are qualified to run.

U.S. Women’s Rights in the 21st Century

Women’s rights organizations in the United States continue to advocate on behalf of women’s issues. Women’s organizations, often under the auspices of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, are engaging in collaborative strategies to advance their policy issues and their political goals. Women’s rights activities in the United States have maintained a focus on women’s social, economic, and political equality and women have increasingly become more involved in the international women’s rights community to advocate for women across the globe.

Despite the continued activity of women’s rights organizations in U.S. politics, there are several differences in women’s rights work in the 21st century compared with the 1970s and 1980s. First, at this point in U.S. history, there is no single defining women’s issue that has the power to bring activists together to focus on a specific goal. In the early suffrage movement, the right to vote was the focus of organized efforts for women’s equality. Similarly, in the second wave of the women’s rights movement, the passage of the ERA was the priority of women’s organizations. In the absence of such big national initiatives, women’s rights organizations have continued to work on issues but have not maintained the level of visibility or the numbers of women involved in advocating for women’s equality.

And although American women are enjoying high levels of social, economic, and political opportunity and are participating as students, workers, and public officials in higher rates than in previous decades, there continues to be a persistent glass ceiling to women’s full participation. On all fronts, women remain underrepresented in the top echelons of power. Although they are at parity as students at university and are roughly equal as entry-level university professors, women are underrepresented as tenured and full professors at major research universities and as deans, provosts, and university presidents. Similarly, women have moved in significant numbers into the U.S. workforce, but they remain underrepresented in senior management positions and make up only roughly 2 percent of chief executive directors and 14 percent of members of boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies (Rhode 2002). Finally, although women have made historic gains in leadership in Congress, in presidential administrations, and in state politics, all three have seen historic gains but have a long way to go. Women remain significantly underrepresented in the state and federal legislatures and are only recently emerging as serious contenders for the presidency.

Several reasons are offered for the continued absence of women in leadership in the United States. First is public opinion, which has proven to be quite ambivalent about women’s rights. Deborah Rhode (2002) , in her book The Difference ‘Difference’ Makes: Women and Leadership, argues that the United States is facing the “‘no problem’ problem.” She argues, “A central problem for American women is the lack of consensus that there is a significant problem. Gender inequalities in leadership opportunities are pervasive; perceptions of inequality are not” (2004, 6). With the high visibility and high profile of political women such as Senator Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice there is a sense in the United States that equality has been achieved. Additionally, many believe that although women may not have equal representation now, it is only a matter of time before women gradually move into positions of power in greater numbers. These combined perspectives result in a lack of urgency and little attention to the issue of gender inequality that many believe will resolve itself.

In addition to public opinion, the United States continues to lack the structural guarantees enjoyed by many women across the globe. American women do not have the constitutional protection of equal rights, whereas in all countries who have adopted constitutions since World War II, women have been guaranteed equal rights under the law. As a result, in the United States, full equal rights for women depend on U.S. Supreme Court interpretation, which is subject to the judicial opinion of the nine justices, only one of whom is a woman. In addition to the absence of constitutional protection of women’s equal rights, the United States has been unable to adopt other structural remedies for women’s continued underrepresentation. For example, where many nations in the past 30 years have adopted gender quotas to increase the proportion of women serving in national and local legislatures, the U.S. political structure and culture prevent such a remedy.

Despite the challenges women’s rights activists face both in terms of public opinion and constitutional protection, American women continue to be active in politics both at home and abroad. Over the past 40 years, the United States has seen great change in the social, economic, and political status of American women. In addition, American women themselves have become more active in the politics of the United States and the global community. Looking ahead to the future, U.S. women will not only participate in public life and represent their communities in the U.S. government and international political organizations, but they will also lead on issues that they care passionately about and provide new agendas and solutions to the problems facing the United States and the world.