Expert Insight

WOMEN’S POLITICAL EXPERIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES Chair, New York State Bar Association’s Women in Law Section . Terri A. Mazur, Esq.





Terri Mazur, Esq. Chair, Women in Law Section of the New York State Bar  Association

Women are a force for change – in the United States and throughout the world – in both politics and business.  Here in the U.S. women have been a force for change since we were English colonies. From the early 1600s through the early 1800s, women influenced politics and business in the United States, even though they could not vote or hold government office.    We had the women’s suffrage movement that began in 1848 -- it took 72 years to succeed in getting American women the right to vote, until 1920.  In the 1960s we had the civil rights and women’s liberation movements which led a number of women (including women of color) to seek political office.  In the 1970s, the Black feminist movement propelled black women into politics and more. The #MeToo movement that began in 2017 revolutionized the way sexual harassment was dealt with not only in the U.S., but in much of the world, toppling some of the most prominent men in media, business and politics. In 2020, we had a record number of women seeking the U.S. presidential nomination – six women – and now we have our first woman of color on the Democratic Presidential ticket.  

The gender gap persists in the U.S. as in the rest of the world, and it is one of the factors keeping women from holding more political offices. I don’t think we will eliminate the gender gap until we have a woman president and until also have 50-51% women in Congress and leading businesses, including leadership and management in the legal profession.

Diverse role models in the political sphere, as in all other aspects of life, are critical on how women and girls evaluate themselves and in realizing what we as women are capable of.  As aptly said by Halla Tomasdottir (an Icelandic businesswoman, public speaker and 2016 Icelandic presidential candidate), “WHAT WE SEE, WE CAN BE.”  We need diversity among our political leaders because “diversity in human experience gives rise to diversity in thought,” as Michelle Obama has said.  Our differences make us all smarter and more creative.  Diversity through women in leadership is a tremendous resource to tap, not to be ignored. 


Senator Kamala Harris made political history two months ago when she became the first woman of color vice-presidential candidate of a major party.  When Harris was named the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee for this year’s Presidential election, she joined only three other women to make it onto a major political party presidential ticket in the United States:  Democrat Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman vice-presidential candidate in 1984, and Republican Sarah Palin was the first Republican woman vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Eight years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton made political history in 2016 when she became the first woman in the United States to be the presidential nominee of a major political party.

As with women in the legal profession and in business, the importance of having women at the political table is enormous. In the U.S. in 2019, there were more than 164 million women in the U.S. – 50.52% of the population; women were about 57.4% of the workforce; single parents heading households were about 23% - and far more women were single parents than men.  

The number of women presidential candidates in 2020 has opened public discussion and heightened awareness about how women are perceived, treated and scrutinized as viable candidates, especially now with the selection of Senator Harris as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate – women candidates and office holders are repeatedly met with sexist and racist comments, and are subjected to discrimination and stereotyping. These remain barriers to more women achieving leadership positions in public service (and elsewhere).  We need more women in office:  women leaders in government are important role models for girls and women. And increased diversity will make for better governing.


 Women have helped define the history of American politics. Indeed, women have been involved in politics in America since the early colonial days – even before we became a nation.  Long before women had the right to vote, many women tried to make a difference and succeeded, working to organize on issues, to develop important legislation, standing up for their fellow citizens’ rights and much more. 

From the earliest days of my country, women have had influence in politics even though they were excluded from public office and voting because of their gender.  For many years, only those very few women who owned property in the colonies and later in a few states had the right to vote.  But in the early days of the United States, women attended rallies, hosted salons, created organizations aimed at helping poor women and children, and joined in reform movements ranging from abolishing saloons to slavery. And even though the vast majority of women could not vote, women were influential in politics virtually from the birth of this nation. One early example is Abigail Adams, wife to President John Adams (the second U.S. president). Abigail was the President’s confidante and advisor; she opposed slavery and pushed for women’s rights and education.  She repeatedly urged her husband “not to forget the ladies.”

The Suffrage Movement (1848 – 1920). 

Women and men were deeply involved in the lengthy fight for women to gain the right to vote in the United States.  Five women started the suffrage movement in New York in 1848 when they met over tea and organized the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, in upstate New York.  The Declaration of Sentiments was passed at that Convention, which declared that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” The Declaration of Sentiments also declared that the government and society oppressed women by disenfranchisement; by lack of participation and representation in government; by lack of property rights in marriage; and by inequality in divorce law, education, employment and earnings opportunities.  It was signed by 68 women and 32 men.  Women fought the suffrage battle on two fronts – a state-by-state effort to grant women the right to vote, which succeeded in a number of the sparsely populated new western territories and states granting women the right to vote long before the eastern, southern and Midwest states did so, other women sought a Constitutional amendment.  The leading suffragists included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucretia Mott, Mary Talbert, Harriet Stanton Blatch and Hester Jeffrey. In the first 15 years of the 20th Century, the women’s suffrage campaign gained momentum, and women’s participation in war work during World War I gained President Woodrow Wilson’s support for giving women the right to vote. Congress finally recognized that “women must be empowered,” and, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, and women finally gained the right to vote in August 1920.


There were no women in Congress before 1917. Elizabeth Cady Stanton – one of the leaders of the suffrage movement – was the first woman to run for Congress in 1866. She ran as an independent in New York State and lost, winning only 24 of the 12,000 votes cast. Nearly 50 years later, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became one of the most powerful women in the political world in the early 20th century when she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 and won, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to serve in Congress.  This was an incredible achievement given that Rankin won this election four years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitutions was passed giving women the right to vote. In 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia was the first female senator, but she only served for two days.

Even after women gained the right to vote in 1920, gender stereotypes proved difficult to overcome. For many years, the path to elected office in the United States for women usually came by filling the office of a late husband; the first women cabinet secretaries in the U.S. federal government administered agencies connected with social welfare. Between 1935 and 1954, 36 women were in Congress. However, women’s political activism took a huge leap forward from the late 1950s through the 1970s. More women sought, and won, elective office. The pipeline of women widened – women with law degrees and political experience began to be elected, including women elected as governors, as state legislators, and those elected to Congress.  39 women entered the House and Senate, legislating during a time of great upheaval in the U.S.: the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War, women’s liberation and sexual revolution, the Watergate scandal and efforts to reform Congress.

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress – and proceeded to represent her NY district for seven terms, until 1983. Chisholm was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972 she ran a historic campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, saying she ran “because someone had to do it first.”  In 1977 she helped create the Congressional Women’s Caucus.

Bella Abzug, a lawyer from New York specializing in labor and civil rights, was elected to Congress in 1971 and pushed for an end to the Vietnam War, women’s rights and the needs of underdogs in American society. She famously said “This woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.”

After decades of lagging male voters, by 1980, women finally were voting in the same proportion as men.  This led to women’s political clout getting increased attention at the polls as people began to recognize the gender gap – the difference in men’s and women’s voting patterns – was making an impact on who was elected and on the issues. Women voted differently, especially on issues involving the use of force and social justice.

In the early 1990s, sexual harassment became a critical issue in politics after a law professor, Anita Hill, accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of having sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Clarence Thomas narrowly won confirmation. Angered by the treatment Anita Hill received on Capitol Hill and in the national media, more women ran for national office in 1992 than ever before: 39 women ran and 22 won.  Women made dramatic gains in both houses of Congress, and in state and local elections across the country. Also, when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, Hillary Clinton became First Lady and broke tradition with how most First Ladies had acted. She was deeply involved in policy and politics. Hillary took a leading role in President Clinton’s healthcare initiative, which ultimately failed, and stood by her husband when he was threatened with impeachment for lying about his involvement with a young intern. Hillary survived that storm, and, after her husband left office, ran successfully for the U.S. Senate from New York in 2000.

Women on a Presidential Ticket. 

The first woman to run for President of the United States was Victoria Woodhull in 1872 for the Equal Rights Party. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine -- for many years the only woman in the U.S. Senate -- was the first woman to seek a major party presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican Convention, but she was not successful.  In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic Presidential nomination, but Obama won the Democratic primary and ultimately the Presidency.  Eight years later, in 2016, Hillary again sought and this time won the Democratic Presidential nomination, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to be the Presidential nominee of a major political party.  However, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 Presidential election, Republican candidate Donald Trump won in the Electoral College and became President.

Women in Congress.

  A total of 325 women have served in Congress. In 2020, we have the highest representation of women in Congress in history: There are currently 127 women in Congress, but it is still only 23.7% of the 535 members.  101 women serve in the House of Representatives; 26 in the Senate. While this is an enormous improvement in women’s representation, it is still a long way from gender equity in Congress.

Women in the Senate

. The first woman to serve in the Senate, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, was appointed in 1922 to fill a vacancy but served just two days.  The first woman elected to the U.S. Senate was Hattie Caraway of Arkansas in 1932. California is the first state to be represented in the Senate by two women concurrently – Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were both elected in 1992.  Boxer retired in 2016 and was replaced by Senator Kamala Harris.   Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois was the first woman of color to be elected to the Senate in 1992.

Women in the House of Representatives.

  As I mentioned earlier, Jeannette Rankin from Montana was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1916.  Representative Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, is the first and only woman to serve as Speaker of the House and has held that position twice: first from 2007-2011, and again from 2019 to the present. She is the highest-ranking woman in U.S. political history and is second in the presidential line of succession, after the Vice President.


But women face structural barriers and attacks in politics on a daily basis that men do not have to confront.  Women face sexism on a daily basis – they are asked about what kind of shoes they wear, who will take care of their children, and get stereotypical media portrayal. They also are sexually harassed. Women have to do more to prove themselves than men do, are held to higher standards than men, get less support from party leaders; every mistake a woman has ever made in her life is held against her, unlike men.  They are also held back by the gender wage gap, face a tremendous amount of conscious and unconscious bias, are unfairly criticized as overly emotional, weak or unqualified and as being shrill, cold, unlikeable.   People focus on their ambition instead of their experience and expertise. Women are placed on a higher pedestal with respect to ethics (so it’s harder for a woman candidate to get past issues that involve being unethical).

Senator Harris has been criticized as “too apt to change her mind,” implying that she can’t be trusted, and criticized for “zigzagging.”  Women are often deemed untrustworthy compared to men, and Black women are supposedly even more untrustworthy than white women.  To deal with such attacks and remain effective, it is important to have a clear sense of your own priorities and values and an ability to articulate them with conviction, so you don’t zigzag.  But there are times when women – and men -- should take stock and change course: respond to criticism and rethink and restate their positions on issues. 

This intense scrutiny of women for things other than the issues they are running on or elected to office to deal with is extremely difficult.  What are the best ways for women to handle viciousness and cruelty on the campaign trail or in office?  As Representative Kathleen Rice told me in a recent interview, women must be true to themselves, rise above the sexist comments and double standard, and sometimes call out the media and the male politicians for their sexist behavior and double standards.

Women’s groups have put the media on notice:  Before Senator Harris was even announced as the candidate for Vice President, leaders from several prominent women’s organizations – including TIME’s Up, EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood – sent a letter to media outlets urging them to not make the then unnamed nominee the subject of “stereotypes and tropes about qualifications, leadership, looks, relationships and experience” that they said have led “the lack of diversity at the top of society’s roles.”  One campaign is called “We Have Her Back,” and they’ve established a war room to refute sexist or false attacks as they happen.


There are a number of areas where the public see women as having an advantage in politics over men.  Women are better at being compassionate and empathetic, working out compromises, conflict resolution and peacebuilding – indeed, research has shown that women’s participation in peace talks increases the likelihood of a lasting agreement.  Women excel at standing up for what they believe in, serving as role models for children and other women, and maintaining a tone of civility and respect. They also do a better job at handling social issues such as education and health care.  Women are often strong in grassroots politics and start out their political careers at the local level. Male leaders are seen as better than their female counterparts on their willingness to take risks, negotiating beneficial deals, and as better at dealing with national security and defense.  However, the public also sees benefits to having more women in top leadership positions in government as it would improve the quality of life at least somewhat for all Americans and for women. Research shows that whether a legislator is female or male has a distinct impact on their policy priorities.  Women’s participation in politics results in greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and helps advance gender equality.


Madeleine Albright, who served under President Clinton as the first female Secretary of State, said that women in power “can be counted on to raise issues that others overlook, to support ideas that others oppose, and to seek an end to abuses that others accept.”  Women’s feminine values are often seen to contribute positively in the masculine world of politics. As one commentator has noted, “Women are more likely to bring values of fairness, inclusion, flexibility, collaboration, persuasiveness and empathy into a patriarchal political world. This is a world where the positive ‘masculine’ values such as focus, competitive drive and assertiveness often devolve into corruption, domination and greed. Men are certainly aware of the potential negative consequences of their decisions, but they are more likely to be conditioned to ignore moral issues in pursuit of a predetermined goal.  They focus solely on the result.” (Karen Bowens, Women in Politics – What is Their Role? (Aug. 9, 2016))

Women thus tend to work across party lines, be highly responsive to constituent concerns, help secure lasting peace, encourage citizen confidence in democracy through their own participation, and prioritize health, education, and other key development indicators.


This is a personal decision. As much as I want to increase the number of women in political office, I still want to be assured that the candidates I vote for have the qualifications, the intelligence and the character to serve effectively.  But we should all defend and support all women politicians and candidates against the attacks, bias and sexism.  Regardless of party affiliation, such attacks on women are insupportable.  Until women are 51% of the workforce – in Congress, in business, in the legal and medical professions, finance, CEOs -- we are going to be dealing with these issues.


Michelle Obama’s statement “when they go low we go high” -- and her explanation of what she meant by this comment at the Democratic National Convention last August: “Let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” Obama said. “Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”

It has been found that “political skill is vital for a woman’s career advancement. Women need political skill to gain access to inside information and achieve the social capital needed to break the glass ceiling.” (Lisa Mainiero (1994), discussed in Jean Brittain Leslie and William A. Gentry, White Paper Women and Political Savvy  at 1 (Center for Creative Leadership) (“Leslie & Gentry”).)  Because women face unique barriers such as not having opportunities for promotion, lack of access to mentors, or not being encouraged to take risks, it is vitally important that women develop political savvy.  (Id.)

So, regarding the question of women having the skills and savvy to be successful in politics, what does it take? Well, I look at the strong, successful women around me, and there are 3 people in particular --2 congresswomen and a big-city mayor -- who have influenced me lately in thinking that there's a clear path to success. First off, ignore the haters! This may be easier to say than do, but it really matters; you'll always have detractors criticizing you -- for how you dress, for how you speak, for what you say -- but as long as you believe in who you are and what you are proposing, let it go. Second, even if you have a large global vision for what you want, it's OK to go small and get there step-by-step.  A congresswoman I admire who has been hugely successful for her big ideas focused on just one issue in the beginning, domestic violence, as her calling card, and she's done a great job of raising awareness of that one issue and being successful at the same time.  Third, you don't necessarily need to be the brightest person in the room, but you should be the most passionate. Believe in what you are advocating, believe in who you are, believe in who you want everyone else in the room to be!  It's ok to aim high, even if you sometimes miss the target; success is measured by how many people you inspire, and help raise to higher heights.





You May Like Also