August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the 96th anniversary of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. We’re marking the occasion with a series of posts that touch on the importance and impact of women in politics. To dig deeper, pick up our latest issue featuring in-depth reporting and interviews on the gender gap and the ways feminism has shaped politics. You can also join the celebration by taking our feminist voting pledge!
Since the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, women have become a powerful electoral force. In the last presidential election, female voters played a key role in re-electing President Obama and putting a record number of women in the Senate, and they’ve been swaying elections for decades. But the women’s vote also has the potential to transform public policy on important social issues, including national security and equality around the world.
Research shows that women perceive policy priorities differently than men. According to Pew Research Institute, women often identify distinct problems as very important, specifically issues around inequality such as reproductive rights and unequal treatment based on ethnic, racial, or sexual orientation.
Clearly, rights and equality have always been central to the women’s vote. It is not surprising that women would demonstrate empathy for the underrepresented and marginalized, considering the deep history of sexism and the gender biases that persist in America, almost 100 years after gaining equal political rights.
Gender equality is not merely an American principle. It is not a partisan issue. It is a universally accepted, global human rights norm. It’s also a national security issue.
Women’s movements have been active around the world for decades in pressing for equality, tolerance and inclusive societies. Women have often been the most vocal proponents of democracy and peace in countries that have been plundered by armed conflict and corrupt and cruel leaders. Like our foremothers in the United States, women in every other country have struggled to gain equal rights. In recent years, those rights have been eroded very quickly in many places.
Terrorism is a top national security concern among American voters. Yet, the current challenges of radicalization can’t be addressed unless our policymakers pay attention to the gender dimensions of this threat. The elimination of women’s rights is a core tenet of the radical movements that are destabilizing countries and forcing so many to flee as refugees. From the Taliban to Boko Haram, to ISIS, these groups have set their sights on destroying women’s access to education and justice. And many governments that are sliding further and further away from democracy are manipulating gender and women’s roles to suit their own purposes.
The spread of these ideologies cannot be contained easily in our inter-connected, globalized world. The reach of social media crosses every border and has the capacity to influence and radicalize those in our own country, as we have seen before. America cannot close its borders to ideas—we are not immune to the poisonous rhetoric about women. We’ve already seen an uptick in hate speech in our own political discourse this year. The targeting of women and their rights is a harbinger of larger undemocratic and violent forces.
Valerie Hudson and other researchers have demonstrated empirically that women’s treatment is directly related to state security. In countries where women are treated badly, there is a higher propensity for violence and armed conflict. And we shouldn’t be complacent about gender inequities in American society. In 2015, the U.S. fell to number 28th in the world in a global ranking of gender equality by the World Economic Forum. The bottom line: peace, prosperity and security are not possible anywhere without women’s rights.
How can American women support this global struggle to protect gender equality?
First, we should exercise our voting power to elect candidates who have track records as advocates for equality—both in the US and abroad.
In 2016, the gender gap could be more powerful than ever, as gender itself has become a lightning rod in our public discourse. The presidential campaign is a perfect storm: a shattered glass ceiling juxtaposed against pockets of deeply-ingrained sexism—and sometimes outright hostility—towards women. But the concerning rhetoric is not just a domestic political issue—it fits into a larger picture globally. There is a growing backlash against women around the world. And American female voters should be very worried about it.
Second, we should collectively push the U.S. Government to make commitments towards women’s rights and to be accountable for making good on those promises.
We can start by supporting key pieces of bipartisan legislation that have been introduced but have not yet been passed by Congress. The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) (H.R.1340 & S.713) would ensure better coordination of U.S. programs overseas to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. Amnesty International and other organizations have ongoing campaigns to advocate for its passage. The Women, Peace and Security Act would codify current U.S. policy to support women’s full participation in peace and security and require presidential reporting to Congress on implementation. A number of advocacy efforts are underway in by civil society groups in Washington to move it forward. The U.S. remains one of the few countries in the world that has not yet ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The inability to move Congress on this issue has prompted advocates to take a local approach. The Cities for CEDAW campaign has led to implementation of the CEDAW commitments at the city level. Even if Congress continues to block ratification, we can push our mayors and city officials to commit to integrating the provisions into social, economic and political programs for the benefit of American communities.
As we celebrate our right to vote in this country, it is time to connect our own history and struggles to the broader global equality movement.
American women have the political influence to elect candidates and shape policies, and female voters place a high value on inclusivity and equality. We have the ability to push our political system to embrace women’s participation and women’s human rights as core principles of American policy—both at home and abroad. The stakes could not be higher today—women need to stand together in defense of safety, dignity and opportunities. Here in America, our right to vote gives us the power to do it.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.