Increased Female Representation in Congress a Byproduct of Continuous Female Rights Advocacy

In 2019, female representation in the United States Congress is higher than ever before. 

Following the midterm elections last fall, a record 106 women currently hold seats in the U.S. House of Representatives – 35 of whom earned their seat for the first time – with 25 women serving in the Senate. In total, nearly 25 percent of all congressional voters are now female, marking the highest rate in U.S. History since Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. 

Female inclusion in the government is an amazing aspect of the political spectrum, but the increasing prominence females are holding among society stems far beyond it. More women hold high-profile positions in the workplace and are the primary income earners for their families. More women are successful doctors, lawyers, CEOs, public leaders, media members, entertainers, artists,  athletes, coaches and so on. 

More women have a voice.

The increased female representation within our country’s 116th Congress is a direct correlation of the ripple effects from continuous feminist movements that are still taking place today.

The United States is a better place because of it. 

The Early Stages

The term feminism describes political, cultural, and economic movements that aim to establish equal rights and legal protections for women.

The first wave of organized feminism started back in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, highlighted by the enactment of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. In turn, they began to enjoy a life of liberation and freedom, were more involved in their communities, diversified their attire and hairstyles, and attended more exquisite parties and social gatherings (think of the Great Gatsby). 

However, the Great Depression-era of the 1930s drastically altered their lifestyle. As the economy plummeted and jobs were scarce, men were called upon to be breadwinners of the family, while women were expected to manage the house and raise children. The culture pendulum swung away from more freedom for women as the “nuclear family” dynamic was established into a societal norm. 

When WWII began, men were called to serve and women stepped into the jobs that were left behind, commonly known as “defense industries.” Suddenly, a higher rate of women was working in steel mills, factories, military personnel positions, offices and even held government jobs. Icons like  Rosie the Riveter – meant to promote patriotism – spread throughout the country and further inspired female liberation. In a sense, women quickly became the backbone of the United States. That didn’t mean they were being treated fairly, however. They were subjected to sexual harassment, unequal pay and poor working conditions – creating the feeling of being stuck in an inescapable bubble of gender inequality. 

When the war ended, most women were expected to leave their jobs and return to the nuclear family dynamic. Though with newfound personal and financial freedom, they exuded an increased sense of confidence and were reluctant to return to their traditional childbearing/homemaking roles. 

In essence, that bubble had finally burst.  

The Second & Third Waves

The second wave reached its peak in the 1960s. It refers to the women’s liberation movement for equal legal and social rights. Led by the slogan “The Personal is Political,” the second wave highlighted the cultural and political inequalities women experienced and encouraged personal discovery to learn how their lives were affected by sexist power structures. It advocated for female identity, fighting the notion that a woman’s sole purpose in society was to bear children and run the household. 

The Equal Rights Pay Act of 1963 ensured equal wages regardless of race, color, religion, national origin and gender. It allowed women to lead successful lives in their profession of choice – like men – and transformed the social fabric of society both in the United States and around the world. A series of Supreme Court cases gave married and unmarried women the right to use birth control. Title IX gave women the right to educational equality. And in 1973, the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom.

The third wave of feminism, which began in the early 1990s, placed a higher emphasis on diversity and inclusion, stating that the ideals of the second wave primarily applied to upper and middle-class white women. Instead, it demonstrated how race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender and nationality were all of equal significance when advocating for female rights. From a political perspective, 1992 was declared “The Year of the Woman” after 24 women earned seats in the House of Representatives and three more received seats in the Senate. Since then, female prominence has continued to rise in all aspects of society.   

The Fourth Wave & Today

A fourth wave of feminism is currently underway. It started around 2010 – coinciding with the emergence of social media – with a focus on exposing sexual harassment, educating about the effects of body shaming, and other issues. The digitally-driven #MeToo movement has strived to hold wealthy and powerful men accountable for improper (and oftentimes illegal) behavior towards women, while body positivity advocacy and LGQBT rights are being fought for across various levels of societal generations.  

The fourth wave has carried over into the political spectrum, as well, reflected in numerous political benchmarks over the last decade (see the timeline below). And now, in 2019, there are 15 percent more women in this Congress than there was the last session. There’s a record number of women of color in the House. For the first time, there’s Muslim women in Congress (Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich; Ilhan Omar,  D-MS), Native American women in Congress (Sharice Davis, D-KS; Deb Haaland, D-NM),  and – last but certainly not least – the youngest congresswoman ever in U.S. history (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY). 

Another aspect: female representation in Congress is almost entirely Democrat. According to NPR, the number of Democratic women in the House increased by 25 this year, while the number of Republican women declined by 10. However, efforts are being made to increase the number of Republican female congressional candidates.

The women serving in Congress today were the same women who grew up through the second and third waves of the feminest movement, and then established their careers during the fourth wave; arguably a byproduct of the impact feminism has made on the current political spectrum. Young, progressive women are fighting important fundamental issues on abortion rights and climate change – impacting not only our country but the entire world. 

In reality, the upward trajectory of female representation doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

And that’s a good thing. 

A Timeline

The following timeline contains excerpts from a U.S. News and World Report study highlighting notable female benchmarks in U.S. politics over the last 100 years. 

1916: Jeannette Rankin is the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives

1920: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, giving women the right to vote. 

1933: Frances Perkins is appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and becomes the first female cabinet member.  

1963: The Equal Pay Act is passed by Congress, establishing equal wages regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or gender. 

1973: A landmark Supreme Court ruling – Roe v. Wade – makes abortion federally legal.

1992: The Year of the Woman: Record numbers of women are elected to Congress, with four women winning Senate elections and two dozen women elected to first terms in the House.

1997: Madeleine Albright becomes the first female Secretary of State.

2007: Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female Speaker of the House.

2008: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin becomes the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican ticket. 

2016: Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first U.S. woman to lead the ticket of a major party.

2019: The highest number of females are elected into the 116th U.S. Congress.