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How Women Remade American Government After Suffrage

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“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.”

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