The first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress took office more than 100 years ago. Republican Jeannette Rankin arrived in Washington from Montana in 1917 and quickly made a mark in the House, voting with a few dozen colleagues to oppose America’s entry into World War I.
The move cost Rankin her seat in the next election, but she never stopped fighting for peace. In 1940, she was again elected to the House and soon voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rankin was the only member of Congress to cast such a vote, but she was no longer the only woman in the chamber. By then, the “lady of the House” had eight female colleagues.
The number of women in Congress has climbed steadily since Rankin’s day, a trend worth celebrating as March rings in Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Yet the progress comes with a sobering caveat: representation for American women is still far from equal.
There are 147 women serving in the 117th Congress, including non-voting seats: 123 in the House and 24 in the Senate. Collectively, they make up about 27 percent of the legislative branch while women represent about 51 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And so the work continues toward a goal that Rankin herself summed up handily. “We’re half the people” she said, “we should be half the Congress.”
‘Value Their Experience’
Despite the gap in representation, there’s no doubt women have advanced across the political spectrum in recent years. Kamala Harris became the first female vice president. Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House. Janet Yellin became America’s first female Treasury Secretary—after she served as the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve.
And these advances don’t just take place in Washington. For example, in 2018 Nevada became the first state in U.S. history to have a majority female legislature.
Of course, the accomplishments of American women who serve in Congress are not limited to “firsts.” Read through the Women of the 117th Congress guide and you’ll find an extraordinary diversity of experience and achievement.
There are lawmakers who served on aircraft carriers and those who studied astrophysics. There are those who owned farms, started businesses and worked as teachers. Some came to Washington with advanced degrees. Others came with leadership experience at companies like General Motors and Microsoft.
Pelosi, who broke the “marble ceiling” in Congress when she became Speaker, speaks often of the need for women to continue advancing. “I really want women to know their power, to value their experience,” she said. “To understand that nothing has been more wholesome in the political process than the increased involvement of women.”
You Can Take Action
For professionals in public affairs and government relations, Women’s History Month is a good time to take stock of your program. What percentage of your audience is women? Is your messaging tailored to reflect that percentage, or perhaps even increase it? Can you be doing more to speak to women about your issue?
March is also a good time to honor the role that women play in politics and policy. Here are three actions that almost every organization can take to focus on women this month.
- Highlight Your Leaders. The women on your team bring a unique perspective, which should always be represented both internally and externally. This is an opportunity to go farther. Invite the women in your organization to advance your messaging in their own voices on your blog or other public channels. Really put them out front.
- Spotlight Women Advocates. If your organization collects advocate stories—and you should, because they resonate with public officials—this is a good time to highlight stories told by women. Whether they are letters, social posts or videos, give the women who support you a megaphone.
- Thank Women Who Serve. There are 147 women in Congress, more in state legislatures and thousands in the administration and regulatory agencies. This is a good time to thank them publicly for all that they do.
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