What a Difference a Century Makes: Rise of the 50 Foot Woman

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This summer marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote.

When it comes to issues like gender parity, racial equality and pay equality, it’s always tempting to look at how far we have to go…and sigh. Or scream. A 2019 study found that, at the current rate of change, women in the US are still 208 years away from full gender equality. So, there’s plenty of work yet to be done.

But, y’know, it’s an anniversary. That’s always a good time to look back at how far we’ve come.

Take these examples:

Voting

Only 35 percent of eligible female voters went to the polls in the 1920 elections. Understandable. It was still a fairly controversial idea. Plus, tragically, African-American women were generally denied the vote until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Flash-forward to 2016, and about 63 percent of all voting-age women cast their ballots. Female voter participation has been at 60 percent or higher since at least 1980 — and it rises to 70 percent or more for women 45 and older.

Like Gloria Steinem says: women tend to get more radical with age.

Congress

In 1921, there were four female Members of Congress. Sort of. Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia became the first woman senator in US history…but she only served one day as a recess appointment. Of the three female House members, one served for just 14 weeks.

Today, there are 102 female members of the House — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman ever to hold this powerful post — and 26 in the Senate. For both chambers, these are historic highs.

Judges

In 1920, there were just three female judges in the United States.

In 2020, there are over 6,000 female state court judges and 18 female state supreme court judges. Plus, of course, the three Supremes: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Overall, about 33% of the judges in the United States are women.

Lawyers

In 1920, there were 84 women enrolled in law school. In 2020, there are over 54,000. Since 2016, more women than men are receiving law degrees each year.

In 1920, just a few hundred women nationwide were practicing attorneys — so few they didn’t even bother to keep statistics. In 2020, about 37% of the country’s 1.3 million active attorneys are female. 

Women in the Workforce

In 1920, the Census found that 24% of American women over the age of 16 had wage-earning jobs. In 2020, that number is up to 57%. Today, women are the primary breadwinners for 40% of US households.

What’s next?

We could look at these as pretty bad statistics. Two centuries and we’re still only 25% of Congress? And that’s a historic high? Why is there a gender “gavel gap” in the judiciary? Why do women get the majority of law degrees, but still represent less than 40% of the legal profession?

These are valid points.

But these then-and-now snapshots still represent progress. More importantly, they represent generations of women who have kicked down countless barriers to make way for those who followed. It’s up to each of us to pay it forward, and edge us just a little closer to true equality.

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