Women and the Coming Midterm Elections

It took 72 years for women to get the vote. The first gathering devoted to women’s rights in the United States was held July 19–20, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. Finally, in 1920—after a long series of intrepid lobbying efforts and more dramatic actions, such as imprisoned suffragettes going on hunger strikes—the 19th Amendment, or Susan B. Anthony amendment, was finally passed, granting women the right to vote.

After that, the women’s movement largely fell apart for the next four decades. Women did vote and joined various organizations, but that grassroots groundswell did not carry forward with new demands. During the 1920s, women did not coalesce into a unified voting block, and their efforts in the two political parties were largely blocked. During this time, a powerful “women’s vote” never came forward to lobby or even to vote in great numbers.

It took the women of the 1960s to push for reforms in the so-called Second Wave of feminist activism. Women finally voted in equal numbers to men, and in the 1980s, the percentage of women voters surpassed that of men.

A record number of women are now running for the US Congress; 183 are seeking seats in the House—as well as many running for local and state offices. But will we see follow-through? Will we see action at the local and state level in the midterm elections? Will women be lining up in droves as they did after Trump’s inauguration day? Will history be made November 6, 2018, bringing in a new wave of women into Congress?

A Cautionary Tale

After women achieved the vote in 1920 with strong leadership from Carrie Catt who helped form the League of Women Voters, she was vilified by the right because she also formed the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. In so many words, she was a pacifist, and some conservative women who formed the Woman Patriot newspaper linked Catt and the League to communism and Moscow. The group that lost the battle on the votes for women, the antis, went after the suffrage leaders, and as journalist Elaine Weiss in her new book The Women’s Hour recounts, “they also planted spies in groups they suspected of radical activity, compiled names, created blacklists, made unfounded accusations, and provided unverified information to willing government recipients”—like J. Edgar Hoover.

Thus, even with the successful women’s marches in January of 2016 and 2017, and with increased numbers of women running for office in many states, there is again a possibility of splintering into different advocacy groups and facing a backlash from Trump supporters. The history of the success of women’s political participation has not been written.

Women in Power

Vermont and Arizona lead the way with the number of women in state legislatures, with both at 40 percent, and in Vermont, the leadership in both the house and the senate is female. Despite this strong feminine presence, many goals for women and families have not been met in Vermont, among them equal pay for equal work. Maternity and paternity leave is still needed, open flexible workplaces could be arranged, and health care could be implemented for all.

Emerge, a Democratic nationwide organization with local state chapters, prepares and encourages female candidates for office. Ruth Hardy, executive director of the local Vermont chapter of Emerge, based in East Middlebury, is “optimistic” that 2018 will be an “exciting year.” Currently, 19 graduates of Emerge Vermont are vying for office in the November midterms.

Hardy has decided to jump into the race as well: she is running for state senate from Addison County, following the retirement of Claire Ayer. Hardy will be up against another Democrat, Christopher Bray, and a Republican, Peter Briggs: the district has only two seats with three running. She feels that with Senator Bernie Sanders running for re-election, the turnout should be good. Emerge-trained candidates are “strong” ones, she adds.

Get Out the Vote

The League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, began in 1920. It evolved from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1890 and dissolved in 1920. The Vermont chapter of the league, with offices in Montpelier, has a little over 50 dues-paying members, including some men. Yes, men are welcome to join the league.

Today’s LWV focuses on voter service and advocacy, according to Catherine Rader, a Vermont member who writes on issues. It works to educates voter and encourages them to attend debates among the candidates and to read their position papers. The league’s website provides a nonpartisan voting guide and other useful information for voters (https://my.lwv.org/vermont), and the league often hosts educational events and forums.

Although the league does not support specific candidates, it does take positions and actions on certain issues. According to their website, “members must study and come to consensus on an issue, in order to form a position.” For example, the LWV is in favor of bicycle paths, walkways, electric-powered vehicles, as well as geographic and intermodal connectivity and renewable energy sources and energy conservation measures. The league supports the establishment of a state bank and favors a Vermont program to provide a basic level of quality health care to residents of Vermont. The complete list of league positions can be found on its website.

In the run-up to the midterms, the Vermont league has tapped into many avenues to get out the vote. In the Northeast Kingdom, league members go to libraries with information, as well as hosting informational tables, such as at the Northern Vermont University’s Student Involvement Fair in Johnson and Danville’s Autumn on the Green festival in October. The league is encouraging voter registration at Phoenix bookstores in Burlington, Essex, Rutland, and Chester.

Many organizations are working to get out the vote for the midterms. Voting for candidates who care about women’s issues is vital. As Gov. Kunin wrote in her 2012 book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family: “We have to organize, mobilize, and advocate with a fierce passion at all levels—from the grassroots to the states to Washington, from east to west and north to south, leaving no constituency or person untouched.”