On March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress and 38.2 million T.V. viewers. Seated at the President’s back were the Speaker of the House and the Vice President of the United States: both women—for the first time in the history of the United States. To the “founding fathers,” any political voice for women would have been inconceivable. Nature made woman “delicate” and unfit for “the Arduous Care of State,” John Adams declared. Thomas Jefferson made a virtue of woman’s apoliticality. He declared them “too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics. They are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning from political debate.” (Adams and Jefferson were referring only to white women, of course. Indigenous and enslaved women were beneath their notice.) On the eve of founding a new country conceived in liberty, the founding fathers had not gotten far beyond seventeenth-century Puritan notions that a woman must never be “a rash wrambler abroad”: home was “the place where God had set her,” and her duty was to “yield Subjection [to her husband] as her Head.”
The idea that women had a right to suffrage was a far stretch even to some pioneering women’s righters. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton proposed to her co-organizer of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Lucretia Mott, that in their “Declaration of Sentiments” they include a demand for the right to vote. Mott—who had bravely argued in her speeches for repeal of femme couverte laws, for women’s right to an education, for an end to the double standard—told Stanton, “Why, Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous!”
The struggle for women’s suffrage limped along for the next seventy years. By the early twentieth century, the National American Woman Suffrage Association attracted a couple million members. But anti-suffragist groups, often founded by women, were also strong. The sentiments of the antis had budged little from those of the Puritans: As a 1916 anti-suffrage essay declared, “The true function of a normal woman” was to be “a wife and mother and homemaker.” If a woman were forced to vote, the woman writer lamented, she would neglect her duties because “she would have to think, read, and talk politics.”
Yet when the US entered World War I, women were invited to take an unprecedented unwomanly leap. The men overseas, women became munitions and airplane factory workers, locomotive dispatchers, truck drivers, motor mechanics, emergency agricultural workers. President Woodrow Wilson, who had for years resisted the suffragists, told Congress shortly before the war’s end, “We have made partners of women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Congress agreed, voting 304 to 89 for women’s suffrage. With ratification in 1920, women got the vote. It was a presidential election year—but only 36% of the newly-minted women voters voted. In the 1924 election, the number dropped to 35%.
How to escape the notion that a true woman does not wish to wrinkle her forehead in politics? In 1928, Eleanor Roosevelt urged the women readers of Redbook that they “must learn to play the game [of politics] as men do.” She proposed a women’s voting bloc that would put forward women politicians who would be as tough and canny as the “bosses of Tammany Hall,” the notoriously powerful New York City political organization. But women never formed a voting bloc, and they were slow to see themselves as politicians. From 1921 to 1950, they seldom comprised more than a single digit in the U.S. Congress.
In 1955, the number of women in Congress reached an all-time high: 16 of 435 representatives and 1 of 96 senators. When Coya Knutson, a U.S. Representative from Minnesota, announced that she would be seeking re-election in 1958, newspapers everywhere published a letter from her husband, imploring her to “come back…and make a home for your husband and son.” Knutson lost her reelection bid to a man whose campaign slogan, “A Big Man for a Big Job,” reminded voters that woman’s job was indeed in the home, not the House. The New York Times smugly announced: “Voters and Husband Agree That [Home] is the Place for the Congresswoman.”
By 1969, the number of women in Congress had dropped back to 11. It was not that women had made no progress in escaping from the old notions of “woman.” The 1964 Civil Rights Act said there must be no discrimination on the basis of sex in hiring, promoting, and firing. By the end of that decade, more than 40% of American women had become “wramblers abroad,” crossing over the threshold of home to go to work; women were earning 43% of college degrees too. Yet in politics, progress was glacial. At the start of the 1990s, 2% of the Senate and 6% of the House was female.
Something cataclysmic had to happen to trigger real change. It happened in October 1991, at the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice and accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, who had worked under him. Thirty million households across America watched as the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee permitted “exculpatory” evidence of Thomas, such as an affidavit read out by Senator Arlen Specter accusing Hill of sexual fantasies, of “having a problem being rejected by men she was attracted to.” Hill was forced to defend herself as though she were the perpetrator rather than the victim.
The optics roused fury in American women. Record-breaking numbers of them ran for political office in 1992: “The Year of the Woman” it was dubbed. Fifty four women were elected to Congress that year. The number has risen steadily since then, to 149 in 2023. It has taken two-and-a-half centuries, but John Adams’s conviction that woman is unfit for “the Arduous Care of State” seems finally to have lost credence.
Lillian Faderman is professor emerita at California State University, Fresno. Her books on the history of gender and sexuality have won numerous prizes, including seven Lambda Literary Awards, two Stonewall Book Awards, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. She lives in La Jolla, CA.