Texas Tech University

A Century After Women's Suffrage, Work Toward Equality Continues

Glenys Young

August 18, 2020

Women remain underrepresented in politics and the upper levels of business.

When the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, it gave women throughout the nation the right to vote, achieving a goal as old as the nation itself. While the amendment marked a step forward in women's equality, it did not benefit all women equally, and work toward women's equality endures even a century later.

This is part three of a three-part series in which Texas Tech University faculty member Emily Skidmore shares the history and impact of the 19th amendment.

White women vote for the first time in 1920.

As of today, women in the U.S. have officially held the right to vote for 100 years. Black women and men, many of whom were deprived of it until the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, have enjoyed the right to vote for 55 years and 12 days. People who do not speak English have been able to vote since 1975, when an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made elections materials and ballots available in multiple languages.

The push for suffrage, which began in the abolition movement and evolved to focus more on women after the Civil War, was about more than just the right to vote. The passage of the 19th amendment was a pivotal moment because it opened the door for women to enter multiple realms they'd previously been omitted from – not only politics, but also business. Suffrage was a major first step on the way to equality.

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States," a 1940 painting by Howard Chandler Christy, features George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. At the time of independence, the right to vote was restricted in most states to white men who owned property. 

By and large, wealthy white men in the U.S. have always been able to vote. At the time of independence, the right to vote was restricted in most states to white men who owned property, but by the 1830s, most states had revised the constitutions to allow men who did not own property the right to vote. Even those who were poor or illiterate, and therefore might have been barred by the poll taxes and literacy tests used to disenfranchise Black men after Reconstruction, usually were allowed to vote under grandfather clauses.

Perhaps, then, it's unsurprising that a gap emerged between white men and those who were striving to share their rights: white women and both men and women of other ethnicities. Despite gains in diversity over the decades, inequities remain today in many aspects of our society.

"Until we have a government that looks like American society, it'll be a struggle for us to correct the social inequities that we have in our society," said Texas Tech University's Emily Skidmore, an associate professor of U.S. history, specializing in gender and sexuality. "The people making the laws are not aware of the struggles of everyone, because their experience is limited in the ways our experiences are always limited – we haven't lived through the struggles of people who don't look like us or who grew up in different areas. But if we had a more diverse group at the table, I think we would create laws that would work better for everyone."

For women, and especially women of color, the century-old work of equality is still a work in progress.


When looking at representation in business and politics, it's important to consider the composition of the population. After all, one goal of a representative government is for the government to be a reasonably accurate representation of the populace.

The population of the United States is increasingly diverse.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2019, the U.S. population was 76.3% white, 18.5% Hispanic, 13.4% Black, 5.9% Asian and 1.3% Native American. That accounts for more than 100% because some people are counted as members of multiple ethnicities.

According to CIA World Factbook estimates from 2018, men comprise 49.3% of the total U.S. population. However, this is partly due to men's typically shorter lifespans – broken down by age, men outnumber women in every category below age 55, but above that threshold, women become an increasingly larger share of the population as age increases.

Within the typical working-age categories of 15-64, men and women are virtually equal in number. So, to appropriately represent the public, about half of our leaders in business and politics should be men, and half should be women.

The 116th Congress is the most diverse ever.

Women in politics

Now in its 116th Congress, the U.S. Senate has the most women it's ever had. On Jan. 1, 2020, when a retiring male Georgia senator was replaced by a woman, she became the 26th female U.S. senator, compared to 74 men.

The U.S. House of Representatives also currently boasts a record number of women, 101 out of its 435 members. The first-term members of the 116th Congress are more diverse than any previous incoming class, including the youngest and oldest first-term female representatives in history, the first two Muslim women and the first two female American Indian members.

Women now chair a record six House committees in a single Congress – only 26 women to have chaired House committees in the history of Congress – and a record 39 House subcommittees. Women now serve as the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Appropriations – it's the first time two women have served in those capacities on the same committee in the same Congress since the defunct Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop, which was chaired and populated entirely by congresswomen during its existence from 1967-1977.

Rep. Jeanette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress in 1917.

And yet, much progress remains before a truly representative government is achieved.

With 435 members, the U.S. House of Representatives is 71.9% white, 12.8% Black, 10% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 0.9% Native American. The U.S. Senate is 91% white, 4% Hispanic, 2% Black, 2% Asian and 1% multiracial.

Although the number of women in U.S. government has grown, they still hold less than one-quarter of government positions nationwide. From 1917, when Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve in Congress, through the 115th Congress in 2018, the U.S. has had 277 women serve in the House of Representatives. From 1922, when Sen. Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman to serve in the Senate, to 2018, 52 women have served in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman to serve in the Senate in 1922.

The U.S. is among a shrinking number of industrialized democracies that has not yet had a woman president or vice president, though not for lack of candidates. The first woman to run for president wouldn't have been able to vote for herself. Victoria Woodhull, a New York newspaper publisher, ran in 1872, nearly 50 years before women's suffrage.

Skidmore says she believes the women who led the suffrage movement a century ago would be disappointed that, 100 years later, the country still has not had a woman president.

"It's not because men don't have good ideas, it's simply because we know that in order to have a more just society, we need to have equal representation, and that includes the highest level," Skidmore said.

"White men have many good ideas, but we know they don't have a monopoly on good ideas. I think the women of the suffrage movement of the 19th century would be eager to see more women's faces and hear more women's voices, because we know that's how change happens: by having a seat at the table."

Former U.S. Secretary of State and former Sen. Hillary Clinton made history in 2016 as the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party and the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election, although she did not receive the required number of electoral votes to win the presidency.

At least 11 women have run as vice presidential candidates before Sen. Kamala Harris' selection last week, but only three have been on the ticket for a major political party: Harris, Sarah Palin in 2008 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Harris is the first Black person and the first person of Asian descent to be chosen as the running mate of a major party's presidential candidate.

From left, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Sarah Palin. Clinton ran for president in 2016. Harris, 2020, and Palin, 2008, are two of the three women to run for vice president on a major party ticket.

"One question students ask me a lot is why there is such a slow pace of change regarding women's participation in politics," Skidmore said. "Things like the low rate of women serving in Congress, the low rate of women senators, the fact that we've never elected a woman president, I think all of those point to how slowly change has happened in this regard.

"It points to the reticence of people in power to allow for more people to take part in politics and allow access to the sort of networks and financial institutions you need to have access to in order to launch successful campaigns."

Women in the C-suite

Outside the realm of politics, women also are underrepresented in the upper echelons of the business world.

Mary Barra is the CEO of General Motors, which is ranked No. 18 on the 2020 Fortune 500 list. General Motors is the largest U.S. company by total revenue with a woman as its CEO.

Women are CEOs at 37 of the 2020 Fortune 500 companies – the 500 largest U.S. corporations by total revenue as ranked by Fortune Magazine. According to the 2019 Fortune 500 list, 58 companies – 11.6% – had a woman as chief financial officer (CFO).

A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of S&P 500 companies, the largest U.S. publicly traded companies, found that women in upper management levels had grown from 2007-2017. At these 500 companies, women were 25.5% of CFOs; 23.8% of chief legal officers; and 7.5% of chief operating officers.

The concept of the "glass ceiling" that impedes career progress applies to women and minorities regardless of gender. It can significantly impact how much money they earn over their lifetimes.

Wage gap

However, the glass ceiling isn't solely responsible for the economic inequality of women, particularly women of color.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average woman's unadjusted salary has been cited at 81%-82% of the average man's. In a 2016 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, women nationally earned 81.9% of what men earned, while in the American Association of University Professors' 2018-19 faculty compensation survey, women full-time faculty were paid on average 81.6% of men. The difference was attributed primarily to men's disproportionate representation at higher paying institutions and holding higher ranks.

Emily Skidmore, associate professor of history at Texas Tech, emphasizes that the deep inequities in the nation are interconnected.

The Pew Research Center in 2016 examined median hourly earnings, not controlled for job-type differences. Unlike averages, which can be skewed by outlying high or low numbers in the data set, medians are typically a better representation of the majority of values. It found that Asian women earned 87%, white women 82%, Black women 65% and Latina women 58% of what white men earn each hour.

"There are deep inequities within our nation, and they're so interconnected," Skidmore said.

Where could we be now?

Skidmore was leading a class discussion last summer about the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where people came together to talk about women's rights and ultimately produced what was conceivably the women's Declaration of Independence. The document delinated the ways in which women had yet to attain equality in the political, social or economic life of the nation.

An illustration of the Seneca Falls Convention, published in 1859.

One student raised his hand.

"He said, 'This makes me sad reading this, because I think about our nation and I wonder how much further we would be now if we had allowed for more seats at the table from the beginning,'" Skidmore recalled.

"How much further would we have been if we had allowed women or people of color in the Constitutional Convention or all of those conversations when we created a government and a society?

"Because the laws and social expectations that have been set by those in power benefit certain groups at the expense of other groups, and because still today, women of color are among the most underrepresented in government, we don't have their voices at the table when we're creating laws. That has real material consequences."

The series

Part one: Women's Suffrage Was More Than A Century In the Making.
Part two: The 19th Amendment Did Not Benefit All Women Equally.
Part three:  A Century After Women's Suffrage, Work Toward Equality Continues.