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February 09, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Looking at the Nineteenth Amendment through a Twenty-First Century Lens

by Elizabeth M. Yang

The 100th anniversary of any major event, especially a constitutional amendment, brings much introspection and queries as to whether the purpose of its creation has been fulfilled. The Nineteenth Amendment, granting the right to vote to women, is no different. In order to answer this question, one must consider the premise of the amendment and apply it to the present time. What circumstances created the need for the Nineteenth Amendment? What was the intended remedy of the amendment? Has that remedy been realized? These questions can best be answered through an analysis of the trends and current status of women’s participation in our political process, as compared to the participation of men.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. Anthony.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. Anthony.

Brief History of the Nineteenth Amendment

On August 18, 1920, 132 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and the right of women to vote was extended to all citizens of the United States. The Constitution, as originally drafted, granted the right to vote to “the People of the several States.” At that time, “people” were white males who either owned property, met certain religious requirements, or paid poll taxes, representing approximately 6 percent of the adult population.

The 70-year struggle to gain women’s suffrage began in Seneca Falls, New York, at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to raise awareness and provide a forum for a discussion of the disparate social, civil, and moral rights given to women versus those afforded to men at the time. Equal rights for women was the primary premise of the convention. This long-fought journey culminated in two simple sentences, composed of 39 words, “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The remaining barriers preventing women of color from voting were eradicated as a result of the two-decade-long civil rights movement, which began in the 1940s and ended in the 1960s with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As we approach the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, there has been much celebration and reflection on the struggles, sacrifices, and sheer tenacity of so many that resulted in the ultimate triumph of women’s suffrage in the United States. After all, amendments to the Constitution are not to be taken lightly, as they seek to change the fundamental and guiding principles of our government. Amendments must be adopted by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and then ratified by three-fourths of the states. Of course, we celebrate the tremendous efforts that allowed the Nineteenth Amendment to become a reality, as any amendment to the Constitution is precious and certainly not an easy endeavor.

But, as is often the case, reflection is just as important as celebration, for it allows us to more fully understand and appreciate our past. Women’s suffrage is the perfect example of why reflection is important. Names of white suffragettes, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, have always been associated with obtaining the right to vote for women. The gift of time coupled with growth and changes that have led to a more inclusive society have allowed for an honest accounting and representation of the diversity of the participants in the suffrage movement. We now hear of the important roles that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other women of color played in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the civil rights movement that ultimately granted the right to vote to all women.

Purpose and Remedy of the Nineteenth Amendment

Women Voting

At its most basic level, the women’s suffrage movement can be interpreted as a herculean effort to gain the right to vote for women, allowing them the same right afforded to men in the twentieth century. As such, the success of the Nineteenth Amendment can easily be gauged by statistics and trends of the numbers of women and men voting in elections. Under such an interpretation, the promise of the amendment is achieved if women and men are voting in equal numbers.

In the last 40 years, since the 1980 presidential election and all subsequent federal elections, more women than men have cast ballots in those elections. In fact, the number of women voting has been greater than men in all presidential elections since 1964. In 2018, 55 percent of eligible women voted versus 51.8 percent of eligible men, compared to 61 percent of eligible women and 61.5 percent of eligible men in 1980, and 39.25 of eligible women and 37.5 percent of eligible men in 1964. These statistics are on track with the last two decennial censuses of 2000 and 2010, which reported a male population of just over 49 percent and a female population of just under 51 percent. Based on this analysis, the Nineteenth Amendment has been successful, and its promise has been achieved. 

Percentages of Women in Federal and State Elective Office

Year U.S. Congress Statewide Election Office State Legislature
1971 3% 7% N/A
1981 4% 11% 12%
1991 6% 18% 18%
2001 13.6% 27.6% 22.4%
2011 16.8% 22.1% 23.7%
2016 19.6% 24.1% 24.5%
2017 19.6% 22.8% 25.1%
2018 20.6% 23.8% 25.4%
2019 23.7% 29.3% 28.9%
Percentages of Women in Federal and State Elective Office

Women in Elective Office

But a more nuanced interpretation would suggest that the intent of the women’s suffrage movement was about more than giving women the right to vote. After all, the genesis of the Nineteenth Amendment, born of the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, was to give women complete and equal rights to men. Today, this concept of equal rights is explored through “gender parity” and the “gender gap.”

In any vibrant society or democracy, the ability of all citizens to participate fully and equally in all levels of the political process is paramount. Full participation in the electoral process is not limited to voting. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 (Gender Gap Report), published by the World Economic Forum, surveys 153 countries and measures various dimensions to determine progress toward gender parity. Those key dimensions are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political representation. The scope and intent of the Nineteenth Amendment fall squarely in the dimension of political representation.

The Gender Gap Report states, “[w]ithout representing one-half of the population in national and local politics, progress will be stymied in other areas pertinent to women and the quest for gender parity.” In other words, unless full consideration and understanding of women’s issues occurs during the drafting of legislation and policy, then other key aspects affecting women, such as economic participation and opportunity, are less likely to advance. Simply put, equal representation of women in national, state, and local government is a key factor in ensuring and advancing gender parity. An analysis of women in elective office in the United States will require a more thorough examination of American women in politics and, for comparison purposes, their counterparts in the rest of the world.

The Gender Gap and Political Representation: U.S. vs. the Rest of the World

The United States

In 2019, with the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment just around the corner, there are a record 126 American women in federal elective office (25 women senators and 101 women representatives); 91 women in statewide elective executive positions; and 28.9 percent of statewide elective legislative offices are held by women.

The following figures represent a growing upward trend of women in elective government roles in the United States.

In 2019, on the local level, in the 100 cities with the largest populations, 27 seats are held by women mayors; in cities with populations greater than 100,000, 59 out of 284 mayors are women; and in cities with populations greater than 30,000, 300 women out of 1,366 are mayors. Roughly 22 percent of mayors in cities with populations greater than 30,000 are women.

These figures representing the role of American women in federal, state, and local government elective office show great growth, but unfortunately when compared to the proportion of women to men, the gender gap is still large. The female-to-male ratio in the United States hovers at close to even, with the slightest of advantages to women at 51 percent of the population and men at 49 percent. Even if we use the generous figure of 29.3 percent of women in statewide elective office in 2019, the gender gap is over 20 percent, and in federal elective office, the gender gap is over 25 percent. These figures point to a long road to gender parity in political representation in the United States.

The Rest of the World

Compared to the rest of the world, in 2019, the United States had the largest number of women in federal, state, and local elective office, yet the achievement of true gender parity in political representation still seems a far reach. In fact, according to the Gender Gap Report, the United States placed just in the top third, ranking 53 of 153 countries overall globally. Yet, when considering political empowerment, the United States dropped to a little better than half of all countries surveyed and placed 86 of 153. One might wonder how this is possible. How could the United States, known as the leader of the free world and for its democratic principles and values, have such a low standing when it comes to gender parity and political representation? The answer is quite simple: The United States, for all its advantages and democratic success, has never had a female national head of state. A woman has never served as president of the United States of America.

Women as Heads of State

The list of women heads of state is reasonably large and not limited to European countries. As of January 1, 2020, there are currently 24 women heads of state. The geographic breadth of women as national leaders is wide and far reaching. The following is not an exhaustive list of international women heads of state, but rather an attempt to show the diversity of geography and length of service. Indira Gandhi served as prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. Golda Meir served as prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister of England from 1979 to 1990. Corazon Aquino served as president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992. Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. Mary Robinson served as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, followed by Mary McAleese who served as president from 1997 to 2011. Angela Merkel has served as chancellor of Germany from 2005 to the present. Park Geun-hye served as president of South Korea from 2013 until her impeachment in 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi has served as state counsellor of Myanmar, the de facto head of state, from 2016 to the present. And Tsai Ing-wen has served as president of Taiwan from 2016 to the present. On January 11, 2020, she won a second term in a landslide victory, securing over 57 percent of the vote, which equaled over 8 million votes, a record since democratic elections were first enacted in 1996. Tsai’s story as a head of state in Asia is noteworthy, as Taiwan is arguably one of the only true and vibrant democracies in Asia, and Tsai did not come from a political dynasty, as most female heads of state in Asia have, such as Gandhi, Aquino, Bhutto, Park, and Aung.

The reality is that, all other factors being equal in global comparisons, despite record numbers of women holding elective office in the United States, until a female president is elected, the United States will continue to rank lower vis a vis political representation, thus lowering its overall rank in future global gender gap reports.

Achieving True Gender Parity in our Political Process

Gender parity in our electoral process is the twenty-first century raison d’etre for the Nineteenth Amendment. Having identified the problem, what is the solution? How do we close the gender gap in politics in the United States?

Barriers to Women’s Political Empowerment

What are the barriers to women’s political empowerment that are creating the gender gap? Some posit that women do not feel confident enough in their abilities to run for office. Such an opinion is dated and highly stereotypical. The better answer is that it is simply harder for a woman to run for office. Most of the greatest factors can be attributed to simple economics and gender discrimination, from both men and women. Despite a woman’s success in the workplace, she is generally considered to be the de facto primary caretaker of her family. Thus, there is often a need for a cost-benefit analysis of weighing not only work and a political career, but also balancing home life as well.

We’ve all heard of the 1 percent in the United States, the wealthiest of the wealthy. Well, when it comes to politics, meet the 2 percent. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 2 percent represents the number of the U.S. population that has run for elective office; they are generally characterized as white, male, and holding post-graduate degrees. Again, economics plays a large role, as the sheer cost of running for office is prohibitive to some, and then the weight of gender discrimination can be a hard burden to bear and overcome for some women as well. Historically, women’s abilities have not been considered equal to those of men, and they often must work harder to prove themselves. If the United States is to overcome the gender gap in political representation, we must explore options and solutions that will encourage women to run for political office. We must take greater strides to raise the number of individuals running for office to a greater number than 2 percent.

Barriers to Women’s Ability to Vote

We have established that there is currently no gender gap in women voting. However, a brief discussion of some of the remaining barriers affecting a woman’s ability to vote would not be remiss. Studies have consistently shown that a voter ID requirement is more likely to affect women, especially those with low incomes, minorities, the elderly, or married women, as they may have greater difficulty proving a change in legal name. Additionally, the United States has one of the largest women prisoner populations in the world, and it is growing steadily; women have been incarcerated at double the rate of men since 1980.

States continue to grapple with felon disenfranchisement laws. Only Maine and Vermont do not suspend voting rights during incarceration; 16 states allow automatic reinstatement of voting rights once a sentence has been served; 21 require the cessation of probation or parole or the clearing of all fines before allowing former felons to vote; and 11 will not allow felons to vote unless they have been pardoned by the governor. As the number of women in prison continues its upward trend, there will be consequences that will affect the right of some women to vote.


The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, was a great boon to women’s rights in the United States. The long struggle for women’s suffrage was an important part of our nation’s history and an important part of the advancement and strength of our democracy. Now, nearly a century later, we must look at the amendment through a scope that represents today’s time and society. Under this twenty-first century lens, we see that there is a large gender gap regarding political representation.

We have made great strides, but there is still far to go. We must be vigilant in striving for gender parity in our electoral process. We must do what we can as a society, regardless of party affiliation, to ensure that more women are elected to political office and that barriers to vote are dismantled. Our great nation was created under the notion that we are all created equal; this has been reaffirmed with each amendment to the Constitution. The achievement of gender parity in political representation will prove that we really are all equal and that the Nineteenth Amendment has fulfilled its promise.

Elizabeth M. Yang is president of WStrong LLC, a strategic business coaching and consulting firm dedicated to individual and institutional well-being and advancement. She is a national expert in election law and is currently a member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Election Law and its Commission on the Nineteenth Amendment.