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Women in Politics from 1920 to 2016

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With Women’s History Month 2016 wrapping up, League president Elisabeth MacNamara joined with other women’s political and history experts at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, home of Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, to discuss women’s leadership and public service and their impact on public policy in both a historical and contemporary context. President MacNamara was joined by Page Harrington, director of the Sewall-Belmont House, Ann Lewis, former director of communications for he White House and Liz Wing, senior advisor at the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor for the Women and Politics: Advocacy, Activism and Influencing Policy event.

The discussion ranged from the passage of the 19th amendment and the founding of the League of Women Voters in 1920 to the appointment of Frances Perkins as the first female cabinet member as secretary of labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to present day representation of women in politics.

Lewis spoke eloquently on how the increasing number of women holding political office, both elected and appointed, has impacted public policy. She citied medical research that did not include women among its test subjects as well as the bipartisan events female senators participate in that enable them to get to know one another beyond their party labels, and how that can influence their ability to work together across the aisle. Wing ticked off the accomplishments Secretary Perkins secured – a 40 hour work week, prohibition of child labor, establishment of a minimum wage and unemployment compensation, as well as the Social Security Act – in FDR’s first term.

President MacNamara invoked the words of our founder, Carrie Chapman Catt and her call for a League of Women Voters to ‘finish the fight’ in part by helping new voters exercise their right. In 1920, when the 19th amendment became law, 23 million women gained the right to vote, but barriers to the vote remained then and remain today as well. The League continues to believe in the power of women to create a more perfect democracy. Since passage of the 19th amendment, we’ve continued working to empower all voters by advocating for fair, free and accessible elections, registering tens of thousands of new voters annually at naturalization ceremonies, high schools, community colleges, bus stops and county fairs, as well as hosting candidate debates and publishing voters’ guides to help voters hear directly from those running for office on their vision for America’s future.

The event concluded with a discussion of the need to restore the Voting Rights Act in advance of the 2016 elections and strategies to engage new and infrequent voters. The event also provided an opportunity for the Sewall-Belmont House and the League to announce the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative that will help mark 100 years of women voting.

In 1920, women joined the American electorate. Every woman who has used the power of their vote has changed this country and changed the world. In every election, we have the potential and the power to do it again. We can make our democracy more perfect. The suffragists believed it; the League believes it, too.

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