The future is female.
Do you ever feel as if this catchy slogan pops up everywhere these days? From campaign ads to political rallies, Get Out The Vote efforts to reports from prestigious policy think tanks, the impact and influence of women on American politics can hardly be understated. In fact, according to the Brookings Institute, the most profound shifts in U.S. politics, both current and future, rest on women.
And this year, the impact of the female vote seems more significant than ever. In the context of a hotly contested election season — taking place exactly 100 years after the 19th Amendment gave (some) women the right to vote — women’s growing political influence means gender is sure to play a critical role in this fall’s elections.
Whether viewed as a right, a duty, or a sacred act, women’s votes have the power to shape not just the next election, but the trajectory of American politics. There’s a reason why 2020 has been dubbed the “Year of the Woman Voter.” Here’s why the female vote is so important in 2020.
100 Years of Suffrage
When looking at the state of American politics today, it can be hard to remember that women have only enjoyed the right to vote for 100 years. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified into the U.S. Constitution. This victory followed decades of struggle, with famous suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and many more leading the charge.
Of course, voting rights were not extended to all American women on that summer day. Black, Latina, and other women of color continued to be denied their Constitutional right to vote for decades — thanks to Jim Crow laws — while Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship, thus preventing them from voting. In fact, it took several generations of struggle before the promise of the 19th Amendment was realized.
Brave activists such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Zitkala-Sa, Juno Frankie Pierce, Jovita Idár, Mary Burrill, and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee fought for years so that women in marginalized groups could also exercise their Constitutional right to make their voice heard. Thanks to their efforts and many others’ tireless work, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed in 1943, most Jim Crow laws were eventually repealed in the 20th century, and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965, almost half a century after the 19th Amendment was ratified.
But despite the fact that the 19th Amendment didn’t extend the right to vote to all women (or men, for that matter), it did lead to women’s enfranchisement on a massive scale. In the 1920 Presidential election, millions of women voted for the very first time. Now, one hundred years later, women are poised to tip the scales of power for the long term.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. Women have voted in greater numbers than men since the 1964 presidential election and, since 1984, the proportion of eligible female voter turnout has also been greater than that of men. In 1980, men and women both voted at a rate of about 64 percent; since then, the numbers have diverged, with about 59 percent of male voters to about 63 percent of female voters exercising their right to elect a President every four years.
When looking at just Latina and Black women voters, the participation rates across the gender gap grow even higher. Significantly, groups who were once denied the right to vote are now exercising their rights in greater numbers… and powering a change that is reshaping American politics.
2016: A Tipping Point
Though female voter participation has been outstripping that of men for several decades, the 2016 presidential election seemed to serve as a tipping point of sorts. This may be due in large part to the candidacy of Hilary Clinton, the first woman nominated as a presidential candidate by one of two dominant political parties in the U.S.
Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million ballots, but lost the electoral college and, thus, was denied the presidency. Though her bid for the nation’s highest office ended in defeat, her campaign set off a reaction that we’re still seeing four years later, from the realignment of party coalitions to women’s growing involvement in politics in general.
One indication of this sea change? The amount of women serving in and running for political office. The 1992 presidential election was known as the “Year of the Woman” because the number of female senators increased by a magnitude of three… which may sound impressive, but really shifted from two women in the Senate to six. Plus, 24 women were elected to the House of Representatives that year, setting a new record.
However, over the intervening decades, the number of women in office continued to grow, slowly but steadily, as did women voters’ participation. Another factor was shifting, as well: Party affiliation. This particular characteristic has had lasting ramifications for American politics.
In the 2012 elections, 55 percent of women voted for the Democratic presidential candidate. When the 2016 elections rolled around, 54 percent of women voted for the first female Democratic presidential candidate.
But then came 2018, a watershed year. In the midterm elections — not usually a huge draw for most of the electorate — women voted in record numbers. They also overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates. These record numbers played out to the tune of 59 to 41 percent.
Significantly, women’s party affiliation shifted over the decades, as well. In 1994, women identified as Democrats over Republicans by 48 to 42 percent; by 2017, 56 percent of women identified as Democrats. This shift toward one political party has taken place across groups, at all education levels, across racial backgrounds and ethnicities, and with women voters of all ages, from Millennials to Boomers.
2018 also saw an influx of women running for and winning office. This so-called “women’s wave” swept record numbers of women into Democratic offices up and down the ballot, across the country.
2020 Election: An Engaged, Enthusiastic Electorate
So what, exactly, is driving this wave of women voters? Is it more female candidates, or an increasing enthusiasm for politics? What’s the cause of heightened political engagement across the board?
For many women, political engagement is largely issue-driven. Issues such as racial justice, public health, education, climate change, reproductive rights, equal pay, and workplace equality dominate the discourse around voting. Others view voting as an important right and a responsibility. For many, it’s about change, and a desire to make the country a better place for all.
Women have plenty of female candidates to support this year, too. A record-breaking 127 women currently serve in Congress, with 105 Democrats and 22 Republicans on the Hill. A record-setting number of women are running for office in 2020 as well, including 51 all-women Congressional races.
Despite these numbers, the U.S. still lags well behind other nations in terms of women’s representation in the halls of government. Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the U.S. 75th out of 193 countries as far as gender equity in political office. While all of these gains are certainly inspiring, there’s still work to be done and progress to be made… a fact that should inspire women to get out and vote, and encourage other women to do the same.
No matter where one’s political leanings lie, the 2020 election centers around a number of issues, from the COVID-19 pandemic to racial justice to healthcare, that act as motivating factors to increase voter turnout. If historical trends hold, this fall’s election should see female voters turn out en masse.
Voting represents a concrete action in the ongoing struggle to make our country – and the world — a better place. Women can celebrate 100 years of suffrage and honor the work it took to get here by turning up to vote this fall.