The Rise of Women in US Politics

In a series exploring women in international affairs, Stacey Abrams and Amy Pope speak to Gitika Bhardwaj about the growth of women serving in US politics and what challenges remain ahead.

Interview Published 8 March 2019 Updated 24 July 2023 8 minute READ

It’s been almost 100 years since women in the United States gained the right to vote but the US still is yet to have a woman elected as president. What do you think needs to change for there to be the first woman elected to the White House?

Amy Pope: I think it’s coming soon. In the last election, the woman candidate won a majority of the votes of the popular vote. Now, because of the way the US system works, she didn’t win a majority of the electoral college, which is what she would have needed to become president. But, the evidence suggests that she had the votes to get there, and so, one should assume that when the right woman comes along, she’ll be able to make it too. It’s a matter of time.

It’s been almost 100 years since women in the United States gained the right to vote but the US still is yet to have a woman elected as president. 

Stacey Abrams: First and foremost, I think it’s recognition by the body politic that women, not only have the capacity for executive leadership, but that we’re ready for it.

We’ve seen that through the increased number of women elected as governors and attorney-generals and the increased level of participation by women in the body politic.

Then, in the upcoming election, what we need is to have an adequate number of women running so that a woman has the chance of becoming a nominee and I believe that will happen.

Following the US midterm elections last year, a record number of women, including women of colour, are serving in Congress. What do you think are the reasons behind this growth in women running for, and being elected to, political office and what challenges remain?

Amy Pope: I see this as the silver lining of the Donald Trump presidency. It’s similar to the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 who was grilled by a Senate judiciary committee when she alleged that she was sexually harassed by a Supreme Court justice nominee. Many women were angry about the way that she was treated during those hearings and a number of them decided to run for Congress and won in what was called ‘the year of the woman’ in 1992.

I think we saw a repeat of this last year but on a much larger scale. Everything that has surrounded Donald Trump – his rhetoric about women and the allegations that he sexually harassed and sexually assaulted women – all of that has driven women to realize that if they don’t get involved, then things won’t change. So, on some level, it’s actually good news that when women realize that they need to be part of the conversation, they stand up, put their names forward and get elected.

Now that’s not to say it’s all settled. We don’t have a Congress that’s 50:50 or a Congress that represents the proportion of women in the country. But the good news is that young women are seeing terrific examples of women winning elections and making a significant difference. For example, right now you have Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House and you have women in all sorts of leadership positions who are demonstrating how well women can do the job.

Stacey Abrams: Electoral politics is usually a lagging indicator of social and demographic change. We have seen, not only more women coming into the body politic through the 100 years of suffrage and the 45-year history of the Voting Rights Act, but an increased opportunity for participation because of their inclusion in the workforce and in leadership positions.

The more the opportunity for leadership has grown, the more it has translated into electoral power. We have an increasing number of women – especially women of colour – in mayoral positions, and each time we see this increase, it galvanizes others to believe it’s possible for them too.

So whether we’re looking at the election of a record number of women to Congress, or what we saw happen in a number of states this year where more young women and more women of colour were elected to state legislative offices, those are the people who open the door for others to follow.

They demonstrate that it can be done and – what is often unremarked upon – they then open the door for others by hiring more young women of colour and thereby creating an ongoing machine that creates more opportunity for women.

What I see happening right now, is the fruition of what was begun with Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and others – founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 – and I believe it will continue.

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— Six of 12 female members of the US House of Representatives in 1973. From left to right: Martha Griffiths, Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Holtzman, Barbara Jordan, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Bella Abzug. Photo: Getty Images.

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Numerous US Congresswomen wore white to US President Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address in the name of women’s rights and gender equality. How much are these issues still a challenge across the US?

Amy Pope: There are still a challenge. Women in the US are still fighting to protect the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. That’s remarkable if you think about it, that in 2019, there are still very real concerns that Congress may tell women what they can do with their own bodies. That’s pretty significant for a country like the United States. So we shouldn’t forget the things that women have fought for, for so long, aren’t settled, and I think if women take their eye off the ball, there’s a good chance that some of the rights that they have earned over the last 100 years will be eroded.

By adding more women to the conversation – especially women of colour – we’re creating the space to have vibrant arguments about what policies are needed.

We still see pay inequality, fewer women in CEO positions, fewer women leading law firms. There’s reason for all women to be proud of where we are right now but there’s still a long way to go. So I think it’s important that women – and men – continue to advocate to have women at the table, and that the women who are there already, make place for younger women to come up behind them and fill the ranks.

Stacey Abrams: Gender equality remains one of the core challenges in the US. While women make up half, or more, of the population, they often lag behind in every facet of leadership, whether we’re talking about board leadership, legislative leadership, executive leadership or having ownership of their own lives.

The fact that we, as a nation, continue to debate the right to access reproductive choice is a direct connection to the economic capacity of women – especially women of colour and low-income women – because your control of your body determines your ability to enter the workforce.

The conversations around childcare are extremely important for women too, because when you don’t have access to childcare, that often precludes your active engagement in the economic space. This also demonstrates how women, especially domestic workers who are largely women, face a consistent oppression of economics, and so, all of these things are linked together.

What I think is so exciting about what we saw happen at the State of the Union address, and what continues to happen in our national conversations, is that we have to first articulate what the problem is. You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. But by adding more women to the conversation – especially women of colour – we’re actually creating the space to have vibrant arguments about what policies are needed and we have the ability to push those policies through by electing women to be the champions – although not the only ones – pushing for those legislative changes.

From Shirley Chisholm to Hillary Clinton, there have been a number of notable women serving in US politics. How does having more women in political positions of power affect policymaking given the current partisan state of US politics under the Trump administration?

Amy Pope: I saw it first hand when I worked for President Barack Obama – he had a woman national security advisor, a woman homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, a woman as the deputy national security advisor and then I was deputy homeland security advisor. It was a team of women.

Then there were a number of women in cabinet positions who were always a part of the conversation and what I saw was that this all made the conversation much more multifaceted.

People would take into account issues like what will the lack of food mean for the stability of a country. It’s not to say women are uniquely able to answer that question but it does mean that women are often in the position of caring for families and therefore thinking about very practical things, like food, and understand how those core issues can impact the policy debate.

Women come with different perspectives because they’ve had different life experiences. You can’t have a proper policy conversation unless it represents the people you are trying to lead. If you only have half the population sitting around the table then the conversation is not going to contain all of the elements that are needed to come up with sensible and sustainable solutions.

Politics often reflect the realities of those making those policies so, until you add more diversity to your politics, you will have a lack of diversity in your policymaking.

Stacey Abrams: Gender often cuts across partisanship. We’ve seen that play out more often at local legislative levels but it has also happened in national conversations too, in part, because the universality of women’s experiences is sometimes able to cut through partisanship. That’s not always true but it is a very effective unifier.

What we’re seeing happening in terms of the national conversations about sexual harassment, sexual orientation, gender identity, childcare and family planning, all come about because women are now a part of the debate.

Currently, there is quite a difference between the number of Democratic and Republican women who hold seats in Congress. Why is there such a contrast between the number of women serving in both parties and will we see this change in the future?

Amy Pope: I think it comes down to three issues. The first issue is abortion rights which is the key challenge that is critical for a lot of women. The Republican Party for the last 20 or more years has been very much defined by its anti-choice position so I think it makes it difficult for a lot of women to join.

The second issue is that traditionally the Republican Party is about preserving the status quo and keeping government, and other regulations, out of the marketplace. Many of the gains that have been achieved by women have been because of seminal court decisions or recognition that women should be consciously brought into the room. But the Republican Party has customarily not wanted any imposition on the way the market runs processes so I think that means, historically, many women have not been attracted to the party.

Then the third issue is about social welfare. The Democratic Party has been a much stronger advocate for things like healthcare, education and social services – issues that many women see as fundamental – and they think it’s important that government makes sure there is a safety net for all.

Stacey Abrams: The Democratic proposition is that opportunity should belong to all but that there has to be engagement by government leaders to push aside oppression and create that space. That, left to our own devices, we aren’t necessarily always going to create space for everyone to participate and that, although we don’t need government to do everything, government has a role to play.

The Republican belief is more individualistic and tends to argue against an active role of government in abrogating those anti-inclusionary policies and so I think it’s natural to see more women in the Democratic Party because that’s the party that has done the most to advance their cause, advance their access and advance their engagement.

I think what you find with women in the Republican Party is that they give primacy to other parts of their agenda and less to the question of government’s role in fostering equality and opportunity for all.

Amy Pope: In the future, when we have more representative politics, I suspect that we will see far more women in the Republican Party reflecting much more where people are but we’re just not there yet.