Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Midterms could affect Senate gender balance

October 22, 2010 by Mary Walton


Pictured: Alice Paul toasts the passing of the 19th amendment.

By all accounts, voters will use the midterm elections to vent their anger against Democrats. Ninety years ago, exercising their rights for the first time under the Nineteenth Amendment, newly enfranchised females, too, planned to send a signal to politicians. But things haven’t turned out quite the way they hoped.

The suffragists believed that passage of the amendment would usher in a harmonious new era in which the influence of women would cleanse politics of corruption and promote family-friendly legislation and world peace. To their disappointment, however, women initially voted much like men and in smaller numbers. This fact was not lost on elected officials, who quickly abandoned efforts to please their newly empowered female constituents.

The United States ranks 84th in percentage among countries in the number of females in its legislative branch.

But the feminist revolution of the 1960s (learn more at The Center's new Vision 20/20 exhibit), combined with women’s growing economic clout and rising education levels, prompted women to take a keener interest in politics. Beginning in 1980 and in every election since, more women have voted than men, and by an ever growing margin. In 2008, ten million more women than men voted.

This year, 298 women sought nominations to the House and Senate, setting a record. But just 153 survived the primaries. November 2nd will determine the fate of nine Democratic women and six Republican women running for the Senate, and 91 Democrats and 47 Republicans for the House. With 17 women now in the Senate and 73 in the House, the United States ranks 84th in percentage among countries in the number of females in its legislative branch.

Given prospects of a Republican victory this year, it is likely that the number of women in Congress will shrink for the first time in three decades. As many as 10 female incumbents could lose their seats. That setback probably would not happen if women voted exclusively for women. But as always, they vote their convictions.

Mary WaltonIn her new book from Palgrave Macmillan, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, Mary Walton chronicles the final years of the suffrage movement, when women picketed the White House, were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force fed. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate on June 4, 1919, ratification by the requisite 36 states was by no means ensured. Read an except here.

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