In 1921, New York Gov. Nathan Miller called a challenge by women voters to his ally, New York Sen. James Wadsworth, “sex antagonism.”
Organized by the newly formed League of Women Voters to unseat Wadsworth, these women were, Miller said, “a menace to our free institutions and to representative government.”
Opposed to women’s rights, Gov. Miller was outraged that women would try to influence elections. He needn’t have been. The majority of women in his day, though recently enfranchised by the 19th Amendment, were reluctant to vote, let alone for a purpose. Indeed, for a half century, a disheartened suffragist’s remark remained apt: “I know of no politician who is afraid of the woman vote on any question under the sun.”
Today, women comprise more than half of the electorate, and statistics show that they vote more often than men. No longer a special interest, women’s votes have correlated with enough high-profile election outcomes to constitute a voting bloc apart from men. In fact, the gender gap in voting patterns is changing American politics.
The gender gap was first noticed in 1980 when more women than men voted for Democratic candidates. Since then, conceding that the “little woman” may have a mind of her own, political strategists have studied the voting trends of women. The findings are frustratingly inconclusive, but one thing is clear, women are no longer content to yield to the opinions of men.
Women now, it would give Gov. Miller no end of heartburn to know, think independently, even from each other. Elections reveal that they will not support a woman candidate simply because she is a woman, although Hillary Clinton’s bid for presidential nomination benefited from the support of women. Also, they align more often than men with the Democrats, generally considered liberal compared with Republicans. Yet, they differ widely on the issues.
While the gender-gap is not entirely definable, its rise gives women clout. Women don’t vote monolithically, but they do vote in numbers that can make or break elections. Even so, gender equity in politics is a ways off. There are powerhouses like Hillary Clinton, but according to The Center for American Women and Politics, women make up only 16.8 percent of the U.S. Congress.
The lack of elected women is disappointing but so, too, are the millions of registered women voters who sit out elections. And the numbers could grow. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll suggests that women are discouraged and may stay home this election year, leaving more decision-making to men by default. Similarly, according to a report by the Washington-based Women’s Votes Women’s Voices, the votes of young single women, the fastest growing demographic and largest potential for new voters, are absent. For women to be heard, they must vote. The stakes are enormous: pay equity, health care, social security, violence against women, jobs, and education, to name a few.
Like Mary Hays, who manned her husband’s cannon after he collapsed on a Revolutionary War battlefield, women have played an important and courageous role in the struggle to transform America. And no struggle demanded more bravery than their push for the vote, which began in the decades before the Civil War and culminated in a hard-fought right in 1920. In a democracy, the vote may seem fundamental, but for women, the idea was once so extreme that suffragists endured physical abuse from hecklers, police beatings, arbitrary imprisonment, strip searches and brutal force feedings. Still, it was only when they gained the vote that they became full-fledged citizens.
March is Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Women’s Education — Women’s Empowerment.” Recognizing that education is empowerment, the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group for women and girls, has begun a presidential election year voter outreach. The AAUW Action Fund “It’s My Vote: I Will Be Heard” nonpartisan campaign is gearing up to educate and mobilize women.
Women voters have come a long way since Gov. Miller dismissed them as a “menace.” They embody an influential constituency. Their votes wield power. And they are making a difference.
You can make a difference, too. Celebrate Women’s History Month by starting the dialogue and getting involved — and don’t forget to vote!
Joanne Law is a Los Angeles-based writer and a member of the American Association of University Women.