A 50-Year Fight to Add Women’s Equality to the Constitution: Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!


The Ascend Fund announced grants this week to groups in Washington, Michigan and Mississippi to advance women’s representation in state legislatures. This is a terrific example of investing in strategies to better understand the best practices to get to gender balance in politics in our lifetimes. 

Barbara Rodriguez, wrote this article in The 19th about the grants that features comments from Ascend Fund director Abbie Hodgson:

A Seattle-based fund is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into recruiting women to run for statehouse seats in three states, part of its effort to close the gender gap in American politics.

The group, called the Ascend Fund, announced Tuesday that it has awarded $600,000 to 13 nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that will work to recruit and train statehouse candidates from across the political spectrum in Michigan, Mississippi and Washington. The groups will receive grant funding of $15,000 to $100,000, with an average award of $50,000.

Women make up more than half of the American population, but they are just 31 percent of the country’s state lawmakers. Only the Nevada legislature has reached gender parity in both of its chambers.

Abbie Hodgson, director of the Ascend Fund, said lack of equal representation has had a ripple effect on issues including reproductive health, child care and voting rights.

“Recent events have proven that the underrepresentation of women in policy making spaces has led to not only poor public policy outcomes, but ramifications on women’s everyday lives,” she said.

The Ascend Fund is an initiative of Panorama Global, an organization founded in 2017 by  philanthropist Gabrielle Fitzgerald. The fund has a goal of achieving 50 percent representation in statehouses in all 50 states by 2050.

The Ascend Fund has emphasized statehouse representation in previous award rounds, but the focus on Michigan, Mississippi and Washington is part of a new pilot initiative aimed at rethinking ways to close the gender gap in vastly different areas. The fund has deemed the three states “geographically, demographically and politically diverse.” Democrats control the legislature in Washington; Republicans control the Mississippi legislature; and it’s split control in the Michigan Legislature with the governor’s office.


Eleanor Smeal at a Thursday press conference before the House hearing on the ERA. (Twitter)

Former NOW president and Feminist Majority founder Eleanor Smeal along with a number of others testified in Congress —50 years after passage of the Equal Rights Amendment —about the imperative of the amendment to guarantee women’s equality.

Representative Carolyn Maloney, who presided over the hearing, wrote this week about her support for the ERA in Ms.:

Imagine for a moment that the Equal Rights Amendment had become part of the U.S. Constitution soon after Congress in 1972 sent it to the states for ratification.

Many heartbreaking events would have been prevented, for both women and men. Young women would have the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts. People from all marginalized genders likely would be covered under the ERA in a range of employment, public accommodations, housing and healthcare. Women of color and those with disabilities would have additional protections against discrimination. And fewer older women would be living in poverty.

None of that is true today. The ERA has not been added to the Constitution—even though it passed both houses of Congress by a 9–1 margin in 1972, far more than the needed two-thirds majority.

Instead, women’s rights have been turned back on a number of fronts, including sexual assault rates, as documented by the #MeToo movement; reproductive health policies; employment practices; and more. Women’s paychecks remain smaller than men’s for similar work.  Many more women must take unpaid leave during pregnancy and childbirth or if ill or caring for others. As income averaging or time on a job often determine retirement packages, older women are at the short end of the retirement stick—if they are lucky enough to receive any retirement income at all.

The ERA was first proposed in 1923 to remedy these injustices, but it languished in a sexist era. Only dogged work by Reps. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and other new House members of the 1960s won a joint congressional resolution 50 years ago this month to amend the Constitution—which finally brought the bill to a vote the following March.

The ERA’s language is simple:  

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.  The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Just think how those words might have changed the lives of millions of women in low-paying work, providing opportunities for a better education, paths for higher-paying careers, family policies to help raise children, and relief from holding two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or, think how lives would change if victims of sexual violence could have the right to sue under the Constitution, and about the many brave women who have come forward recently to challenge discrimination and abuse—not just by celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Cuomo and Matt Lauer, but also by countless others.  


Sharon Nelson, Governor Kathy Hochul and Representative Carolyn Maloney.

There are just nine women governors in the United States and the 2022 race for governor of New York state is heating up. According to this story in The Hill, current governor Kathy Hochul’s candidacy got a boost this week:

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is grabbing an early lead in the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary as would-be competitors start to nip at her heels in a race that could emerge as a tea leaf for the direction of the broader party. 

Hochul, who took office this year after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) resignation over sexual harassment claims, is the only Democrat thus far to declare her candidacy. But state Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have all hinted they’re mulling bids of their own — and all would bring their own constituencies to fuel potential campaigns against Hochul.

“There are rumored announcements within the next couple of weeks, and I think that’s what everyone’s looking out for. But the longer the sitting governor has the field to herself, I think it makes it a little bit harder for others who also want to jump in. Which is not to say that if they do, they will not run very, very vigorous challenges,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Jon Reinish. 

Hochul ascended to the governorship in August after Cuomo’s resignation and has since hit the ground running, waging efforts to curtail the coronavirus pandemic including by issuing masking mandates.  

Hochul also made an early announcement that she’s running for a term of her own next year and could be enjoying a honeymoon period with New York voters. A Marist poll released earlier this month showed Hochul posting double-digit leads over James and Williams.


Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate Val Arkoosh. (Courtesy)

Val Arkoosh is running in a large field of candidates (queue the discussion of ranked-choice voting) for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania according to this article by Marley Parish in the Pennsylvania Capital Star:

One of the few women running in the crowded race to fill Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022 has a lofty plan to help women return to work after many left their jobs to assume childcare duties amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Informed by conversations with health care workers, childcare providers, and female entrepreneurs, Val Arkoosh — a Democratic county commissioner from Montgomery County — outlined a proposal targeting women and female-owned businesses. It includes raising the minimum wage, addressing workforce inequities, and investing in healthcare and childcare.

Although the policy list targets women and female-owned businesses, children are at its core, she said.

“[Parents] want to know that their children are safe and well cared for while they’re at work earning the living that their family needs to grow and thrive,” Arkoosh, 61, told the Capital-Star on Tuesday. “And if we don’t ensure that our childcare and early learning centers have the resources they need to provide those services, then it’s incredibly difficult for moms and parents to get back to work.”

A September 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women experienced the worst effects from the COVID-19 recession, which hit working men the hardest but prompted women to stay home with their children whose schools were closed, or who had limited access to childcare.


I wrote a piece that explores outcomes for women in the recent elections in Canada and strategies to increase women’s representation that was published in Gender on the Ballot:

Last month, Canadian voters returned to the polls only two years after their last election in 2019. Since Prime Minister Trudeau called the snap election in August, much of the media surrounding the election has focused on the Liberal Party’s drop in polling and the rise in COVID-19 cases across the country. However, more quietly, all significant parties increased the number of women on their candidates’ lists, with 43% of all candidates being women.

All major parties increased the share of women candidates. The New Democratic Party (NDP) led the pack, surpassing parity, with women making up 52% of the party’s candidates. Trudeau’s Liberal Party increased its share from 39% in the 2019 election up to 43%. Moreover, the Conservative Party increased its share slightly from 32% to 33%.

While Canadian political parties have remained committed to recruiting more women, improvements in outcomes continue to be slow. In the run-up to the election, Executive Director of Equal Voice, Eleanor Fast commented, “That’s always a big concern because it’s all very well being able to say a certain percentage of your candidates are women or gender-diverse people but are you supporting them adequately and are they going to get elected on election night?”

According to a news release from Equal Voice, women in Canada will hold 102 or 30% of seats in Parliament. While this is an improvement from the 98 seats women held after the 2019 election, it is also only a slight increase from the 100 seats they held as of December last year. What is more, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Canada’s ranking for the number of women in politics is projected to fall from 55th to 58th place after this election.

As RepresentWomen has stated before, gender parity will not be achieved in our lifetime by solely increasing the number of women running; we need to make our electoral systems better for those women to run and win in. But, how could we accelerate our progress toward parity today?

One method would be reforming the winner-take-all voting in single-winner districts system, both used in the United States and Canada. Reforms like ranked-choice voting – which is already being used in parts of Canada- might also prove helpful in leveling the playing field for women. Both the Canadian Conservative and Liberal Parties already use ranked-choice voting for internal party leadership votes and the system has historically been used for municipal elections in several provinces, including Alberta and Manitoba. Taking intentional steps to implement broad electoral reforms such as these could transform the Canadian Parliament considerably faster.


(Painted by Melanie Humble)

I was excited to read this piece in The Hill about the impressive number of women judges who were sworn into office in Egypt this week:

Nearly 100 women were sworn in to join Egypt’s State Council on Tuesday, becoming the first female judges to join one of the country’s main judicial bodies.

The State Council’s chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, swore in 98 women to the judicial body at an event in Cairo, according to The Associated Press.

“They are an important addition to the State Council,” Hossam el-Din said of the new judges.

“This is a memorable day. It is a dream for us and for past generations as well,” said newly sworn-in judge Radwa Helmy. “Being a woman in one of the chief judiciary institutions in Egypt and the Arab world was a dream.”

Egypt’s State Council is an independent judicial body that largely handles administrative disputes, disciplinary cases and appeals.

The council routinely rejected female applicants in the past, but on International Women’s Day in March, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the country’s Ministry of Justice to allow women to hold positions in the State Council, as well as the public prosecution office earlier this year.

Al-Sisi announced the appointment of the new female judges at the beginning of October, Egyptian Streets reported. The news outlet noted that Egypt has only had 66 female judges out of more than 16,000 at the time of al-Sisi’s order.


RepresentWomen’s outreach coordinator Katie Usalis wrote this terrific piece on the legacy of Angela Merkel’s leadership and the voting system that has helped to normalize women’s leadership and representation:

Germany uses a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system, which has been widely established as much more effective at achieving equitable representation than first-past-the-post or winner-take-all systems—those typically used in the U.S.

For example, multi-member districts in proportional systems allow voters to elect several members at once, and candidates in some countries win seats determined by the proportion of votes for a party.

During the last 30 years, there has been a significant increase in women’s representation in countries with proportional representation voting systems. On the other hand, we’ve seen minimal progress in places with plurality or majority systems.

Secondly, all major parties in Germany have adopted gender quotas. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (a center-right party), has had a gender quota since 1996 that says at least one-third of their electoral lists and party officials should be women. They take it further in that, if this quota isn’t met, internal elections have to be repeated.

Gender quotas are used alI around the world, and they are the most effective system tools for leveling the playing field and achieving more equitable representation. 

The U.S. doesn’t currently embrace either of these systems, but it’s not too late. Work is being done right now, as we speak, to move towards a better system. 

RepresentWomen advocates for long-term, structural solutions like setting recruitment targets, adopting ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts, and gender balanced appointments and replacement mandates. The Fair Representation Act was just re-introduced this past summer and includes many of these critical structural changes.

Germany’s history isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, but they’ve taken the structural steps needed to turn things around for good. The U.S. can, too.


Don’t forget to check out RepresentWomen on social media platforms and this week’s suggested feminist reading:


This last weekend I was at my family’s cabin in the Pine Barrens and visited a Quaker Meetinghouse built in 1775 where the light was streaming in through the windows.
That’s all for this week,
Cynthia

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About

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.