By Natasha Ishak
The year was 1894. Women across the country were fighting to claim the right to vote nationwide. Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly, and Frances Klock, had just made history by becoming the first women to be elected to the House of Representatives, or to any other legislative office in the U.S. Fast forward to 1920, suffragists claimed their right to vote after passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment. It took another three years for Massachusetts to elect its first female legislators, Sylvia Donaldson and Susan Fitzgerald, into the House.
The election of these women into legislative positions meant women could participate directly in creating policies that had real impact on the American public. For the first time, women had influence to shape the country and to advocate from positions of authority for the rights and needs of the nation’s female population.
A small yet steady increase of female representation in the government began to materialize after more and more women were elected to office. But according to data that Susan J. Carroll compiled for the Center for American Women and Politics, the number of women legislators has increased only slightly since the 20th century.
In the 1990s, the number of female lawmakers reached about 20 percent of the total state legislative seats. The number increased to 25.9 percent in 1995 and has since moved up only slightly. Today the number isn’t much better, especially compared to other countries in the world. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international body that keeps track of worldwide parliaments to foster dialogue between countries, ranks the U.S. at number 100 out of 193 nations for percentage of women in lower or single house government. Developing countries like Bolivia, Ethiopia and Timor-Leste still fare better in terms of female representation in government.
On the state level, women currently hold 25 percent of the legislative seats in Massachusetts. This figure is slightly better than the national average. Despite prominent female political leaders like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and State Attorney General Maura Healey, it still falls short of neighboring states Maine and Vermont, where women represent 29.6 percent and 41.1 percent of legislators respectively.
“I think in Massachusetts we have this reputation of being a bastion of progression and in so many ways that’s true. But if you look at our track record of electing women to high office, we’re not keeping pace with that reputation,” Erin Souza-Rezendes of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on research on the advancement of women in elected office.
It’s true. Massachusetts elected its first female U.S. senator only five years ago, and the state has never elected a woman governor. And out of the 37 women in history who have served in gubernatorial positions, only one has held the position in Massachusetts. Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift became acting governor through constitutional succession in 2001 and served in that position until 2003. She assumed the governorship after her predecessor, Paul Cellucci, became U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Carol Hardy-Fanta, a researcher and former director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says this stagnation is both systemic and gender-based. Fanta, who has researched the intersection between gender, politics and race, believes women know too well the extra challenges they must endure simply by being female. For example, studies show that voters must perceive women candidates as both competent and likable. Meanwhile, most male candidates can get away with being disliked as long as voters consider them qualified.
“I think women are very aware of the barriers [to run for office as a woman] and the things that are going to get in their way,” Fanta said. “They wonder if they really want it enough to give up all their family and friends and everything else to do this. They have to be really driven. But then you’re criticized for being driven or ambitious. We saw that with the national elections.”
The prospects for female politicians, however, is looking brighter than before. According to a number of recent articles, women’s political training organizations, such as Emerge MA , have seen surges in applicants since the 2016 election.
Advocacy movements led by women with a focus on women’s issues have also become more prominent, as the most recent Women’s March in January showed. The march was originally planned to take place in Washington, D.C., but the movement caught on and sparked a variation of marches across the U.S., and even the world. The future may be female after all.