How American women gained, lost, and are regaining their collective voice – Apr 2, 2017, 12:00pm EDT

Women have been far more prominent in American politics throughout history than conventional wisdom might suggest.

This the second post in a series on the 100th anniversary of Jeannette Rankin’s induction into the US House of Representatives. 

Passing the statue of Rep. Jeanette Rankin in the US Capitol recently, a student remarked how weird it was that a woman had served in Congress before women had the right to vote. It’s weird, but also not: Women have been far more prominent in American politics throughout history than conventional wisdom might suggest.

As we mark the centennial of Rep. Rankin’s historic swearing-in as the first female Congress member, it’s worth taking account of what non-elected women were doing in the years before and after enactment of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote on an equal basis with men.

The amendment, ratified in 1920, capped decades of intensive women’s organizing not only for equal rights but also for many other issues. However, as Nancy F. Cottreminds us, popular and scholarly skeptics began proclaiming suffrage a dud immediately after ratification. Women weren’t taking advantage of their newfound voting rights, it was said, and the movement that had won those rights had fallen apart. Women were declaring political victory and withdrawing to private life. The suffragist became the flapper.

The narrative isn’t true.

A similar narrative animates the conventional wisdom about mid-20th-century women — certainly white women. During World War II, women mobilized for the future of democracy; in the 1950s, they retreated into pleasant domesticity. Rosie the Riveter became June Cleaver.

This narrative isn’t true either — even for middle-class white women.

Working on a study of the “missing movement” for gun regulation, I became fascinated by the history of American women — a group that seemed especially suited to lead such a movement. In The Paradox of Gender Equality, I track the national-level policy engagement of US women’s groups from the late 19th century through the end of the 20th. I measure policy engagement as organizational appearances before congressional hearings. The hand-assembled data set, spanning 1878 (the first appearance by a women’s group) through 2000 (when my study ends), includes more than 10,400 appearances by some 2,100 distinct organizations across nearly 200 policy domains.

The data tells a story about political advocacy that defies most of what we think we know about women’s history.

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