The Real Turning Point for Women’s Political Power

Female lawmakers needed a critical mass in Congress before they could begin chipping away at the inequalities baked into the nation’s laws.

Lizzie Gill

Editor's Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

On February 13, 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt stood triumphant before the opening session of the National Woman Suffrage Association convention and declared the organization’s decades-long mission finally accomplished. “Women be glad today. Let your voices ring out the gladness in your hearts,” the 61-year-old suffragist said. Thirty-one states had so far ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the remainder necessary for ratification would soon follow suit. “March on, suffragists,” Catt told the crowd, “the victory is yours.”

But while the activists had achieved a monumental victory for American women, the amendment’s passage was only the first mile marker on a long road to the attainment of political power. It took women 60 years for their voting rates to match those of men, and by then they still had little political influence: The few women with seats in Congress had not served long enough to attain leadership positions, and while some were individually effective, there weren’t enough of them to leverage their numbers to enact policy.

While the suffrage movement offered women access to the democratic process, it was the women’s liberation movement of the mid-to-late 20th century that led to their wielding collective influence: Once more and more women arrived in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and ’80s, female legislators, often working together across the aisle, began to make the changes so many of them sought. That those changes were utterly transformational doesn’t mean that policy remedies weren’t possible before—but rather that the right legislators weren’t in place to make them.

“It was day in and day out, and then it became year in and year out, never relenting until we succeeded,” recalls Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine who, beginning in 1979, served for a total of 34 years in the House and Senate.

Some of the legislation championed by women lawmakers, such as the enactment in the early 1990s of the Violence Against Women Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, are remembered as signature achievements more than a generation later. But other victories were shockingly prosaic, correcting gender inequities that few would now believe lasted as long as they did, from giving women access to credit to ensuring that medical research included women as subjects.

Those reforms came about due in large part to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group of House legislators founded in the spring of 1977 that was intended to foster camaraderie among women legislators and bring a collective focus to women’s issues, many of which their male counterparts had long ignored.

That these seemingly basic changes took well over a half century after women won the right to vote was not due to a lack of potential on their part, but a lack of representation and power in Washington.

Suffrage became a constitutional reality in August 1920, just three months before a national election would give the Republican Party control of the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and a majority of the nation’s governorships. Overnight, the entirely male delegations of the 21 states that hadn’t yet given women the vote on their own gained millions of new constituents.

Yet the immediate impact of a remade electorate on public policy was surprisingly limited. Congress did pass two new laws the suffragists had pushed. The first, in 1921, was the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided federal funding for maternal and child care for the first time. “It was the first major social welfare coming out of the federal government since Reconstruction,” says Ellen DuBois, a historian and the author of a forthcoming book on the suffrage movement, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote. The other was the Cable Act of 1922, which ensured that a woman who married a man of another nationality did not forfeit her U.S. citizenship—and thus her newfound access to the ballot box.

Beyond those two advances, however, the advent of women’s suffrage ushered in no great period of reform in the 1920s. (And the franchise didn’t extend to everyone: Black women in particular could not freely exercise their newfound voting rights in many states, particularly in the South, where they were targeted by a number of disenfranchisement methods, from poll taxes and tests to the threat of violence.) Initially, men in power anticipated that women would vote as a bloc, and likely for the GOP, which was the reform party in the early years of the 20th century, exemplified by President Theodore Roosevelt’s support for checks on the power of corporations and for stronger labor protections for workers. But the 1920 and 1924 presidential elections showed that the women’s vote was scattered among different parties, shifting how they were treated by their representatives. “When it became clear that women were not voting as a bloc, by the mid-20s, politicians no longer paid much attention to women's demands,” DuBois says. By the late 1920s, President Herbert Hoover had cut funding for the Sheppard-Towner Act and broke a campaign promise to appoint the first woman to a Cabinet post. “Some suffrage leaders moved to the center” as a result, DuBois says. “Others moved away from federal politics.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt would, in 1933, appoint the first woman Cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins, who led the Labor Department, and women legislators such as Margaret Chase Smith, Ruth McCormick, and Clare Boothe Luce would wield influence in Congress and beyond. But it was not until feminism’s second wave in the 1960s—and the election of dozens more women to the House and Senate in the decades after—that public policy intended directly for the betterment of women would succeed at the federal level.

In 1974, enactment of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act for the first time prohibited lenders from discriminating based on race, age, religion, sex, or marital status, ending a practice whereby women often could not get even a credit card in their own name. But the law’s application to women nearly didn’t occur: Representative Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, then serving her first term in a House seat vacated by the death of her husband, added the words sex or marital status to an amendment to the original bill; made photocopies; and handed it to every member of the Financial Services Committee to correct what she later wrote was surely “just an oversight” by its male members.

Three years later, 15 women in the House formed the “Congresswomen’s Caucus.” As Snowe recalled in an interview, the name was later changed to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues so that the group could include men. “We needed their dues,” joked Snowe, who spent 16 years in the House before moving to the Senate in 1995. The group would spend the 1980s working on policy that transcended ideological lines, pushing for equal treatment in health insurance, among other areas. “We always felt a special responsibility—at least I did—because there were so few women,” Snowe said. “If I didn’t go to bat for women, who would?”

A key piece of the caucus’s work began in 1990, after the two co-chairwomen, Snowe and Democratic Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado, had met with women’s-health advocates about the conspicuous lack of women studied in research from the National Institutes of Health, the primary federal agency responsible for public-health research. “You know, we keep reading about men eating fish, men eating aspirin, all these studies coming out of NIH,” Schroeder recalled in an interview. “Surely that means women too?”

But a subsequent federal audit, pushed by the caucus, showed that the studies did not, in fact, mean women too: While previous NIH guidelines had encouraged the agency to include more women in clinical trials, the agency was still using mostly male subjects and had no systematic way of tracking the number of women subjects. “We were the missing page in America’s medical textbooks,” Snowe said. One study, for example, investigated the use of aspirin in preventing heart attacks, and included 22,000 test subjects, all of whom were men.

“We were absolutely shocked,” Schroeder said. “They didn’t even use female rats!” (It would still be nearly 30 years until the NIH required that female animals be used in clinical trials.)

Snowe, Shroeder, and two other lawmakers—Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Connie Morella, both of Maryland—met with officials at NIH, and they were told that women did not make good research subjects “because of their reproductive systems,” Snowe said. It was a startling echo of comments from Edgar Berman, a renowned surgeon and confidant to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who in 1970 had declared that women were unfit for leadership positions because of their “raging hormonal imbalances.” (Berman, who died in 1987, held to that view well into the 1980s.)

“This was the attitude,” Mikulski recalled in an interview.

Snowe relayed her response to the NIH officials’ suggestion: “Well,” she’d replied, “that’s not going to change anytime soon, so do you think medical research can learn to accommodate it rather than treat it as an inconvenience?”

Within three years, the NIH established an office focused on women’s health at the urging of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues; President George H. W. Bush appointed the first woman to lead the agency, Bernadine Healy, who became an ally to the women legislators; and, under congressional mandate, the NIH began including women and minorities in clinical research. Among the subsequent studies was the Women’s Health Initiative, a $625 million project examining diseases in older women that continues to this day and has been credited with a reduction in the incidence of breast cancer over the past three decades. In the quarter century that the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health has been in existence, research on women’s health has increased dramatically: In the years 2015 and 2016, at least 50 percent of enrollees in all NIH-funded clinical research were women.

“So much of the work done on women’s health, funded by NIH, has come about because of the efforts of women in Congress,” says Susan Carroll, a historian at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “There’s a really direct link there—direct and pretty visible.”

But while the NIH action was a major victory for both lawmakers and American women, it also highlighted the glaring blind spots of many male members of Congress, and the importance not only of the individual influence of women legislators, but also the perspective and lived experience they brought to policy debates. There were many issues that male members of Congress simply didn’t experience personally, and therefore didn’t prioritize. “What we thought was common sense was obviously not common sense to them,” Schroeder said. “There [were] so many things that dealt with family issues or women’s issues, and they never came up unless we would bring them up.”

On issues related to child-care costs, for example, many male lawmakers couldn’t empathize with their female colleagues. Many of them were of a higher class status, with wives who stayed home with the kids, so child care was not something that particularly concerned them. “When we talked about day care or something, they were thinking about babysitting when their wife goes to play tennis,” Schroeder said. They didn’t understand that “this was such an essential and high family cost to most people.”

Once men began to understand the problems that the women’s caucus was trying to solve, several powerful Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, became allies and even advocates in their own right, Mikulski said. “It was never girls versus boys,” Mikulski said, noting that male lawmakers saw it as in their own political interest to support their female colleagues’ proposals. “They were eager to show that they wanted to be concerned about women.”

The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues was not, of course, successful in all its efforts. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was taken up for ratification by the states in the 1970s but failed to cross the necessary two-thirds threshold, remains a paramount disappointment to the women’s movement, and from a practical perspective, it forced women lawmakers to prioritize their battles and fight for progress piecemeal. The caucus chose to focus primarily on discrete economic and health issues rather than engage on the more expansive and controversial social or fiscal issues that might divide its members.

So it stuck to a narrower set of policies long ignored by men. But as those efforts proceeded, women in Congress also battled to stop more sweeping proposals that might have passed had it not been for their increased numbers in the House and Senate. Women lawmakers, including Mikulski and future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were instrumental in stopping President George W. Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security by highlighting the potential effect on women, who as a group rely on the program more than men, in part because they live longer. “We turned it into a women’s issue,” says former Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Another key example, Boxer argued in an interview, was abortion. While state governments have recently taken the lead in challenging the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade by enacting restrictions on the procedure, Congress was a central front in the abortion wars from the 1970s through the 1990s. In the 1980s, for example, the Senate defeated multiple attempts to advance a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to restrict or ban abortion despite the federal ruling. “To me, without the women of the Senate, we would have never been able to make the case for these guys to stay out of private decisions,” Boxer said. “I was one of the leaders, and I could tell you it was not easy. But we won every single time.”

The 1990s saw yet another wave of women elected to office. There were just two women in the Senate for the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in 1991, the first time a woman had so publicly shared her experiences with workplace sexual harassment. But a year later, the election of four women to the body (including Boxer, who had previously served in the House) instantly tripled their numbers; 1992 became known as the first Year of the Woman.

Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas joined later, in 1993, and along with Mikulski began hosting monthly dinners for Senate women that still go on more than 25 years later—even though both Hutchison and Mikulski are no longer serving. The women of the Senate never formed a caucus—Mikulski called them “a force” instead—and the dinners served as a stand-in for a more formal organization. Hutchison and Mikulski worked on legislation ensuring that homemakers could contribute the same amount of tax-deferred money to retirement accounts as men and women who worked outside the home. Much later, in the 2010s, women in the Senate would work on bipartisan legislation to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop custom prosthetics that can accommodate the body types of women combat veterans wounded on the battlefield.

That nearly a century after securing the right to vote American women were still working to correct some of the more mundane inequalities plaguing their gender underscores the limits of suffrage alone, however hard-won it was. More than women voting, it was women running—and winning—seats in Congress that ultimately led to long-delayed reforms. And now, on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment—with more women than ever serving at the federal level—the lawmakers who led the transformational changes of the 1970s and ’80s say there’s more to be done.

“Even now, with the strides that we have made, there is still a problem with women being looked at as second-class citizens,” says Connie Morella. She cited a letter written by the former first lady Abigail Adams to her husband, John, in which she advised him to “remember the ladies.” The letter reads: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.”

That rebellion was born decades before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but it still isn’t finished, Morella says. “The movement is slow,” she notes, “but I think we are beginning to get closer and closer to equality.”