The 1960s Rise of Women in U.S. Politics
The "Women's Movement" of the 1960s helped set the foundation for later generations of female political candidates. The number of females holding office improved significantly beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, a trend that continues. However, American women are still underrepresented in government in proportion to their percentage of the population. Although women made up 50.8 percent of the American population in 2012, only a small number of females held elected state and national offices, according to the Catalyst Knowledge Center. The center found that women held only 17 percent of the federal Senate seats and 16.8 percent of the positions in the House of Representatives in 2012.
1 The "Women's Question"
The "Women's Question" debate of the 1960s challenged the traditional role of women as the primary caretakers of the home and family. The second wave of the American women's movement came out of the general social rebellion of the 1960s, according to historian L. Maren Wood of the North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project, and the changes encouraged females with a desire to hold political office to take up public issues. Gender expanded as a national issue during the 1960s with the establishment of the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 and creation of the Task Force on Women's Rights and Responsibilities by President Richard Nixon in 1969 to encourage women to apply for administrative-level positions in federal government.
2 Female Voters
Although women received the franchise in 1920 with the ratification of the19th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled women to vote in larger numbers due to the elimination of discriminatory state laws that required voters to pay a poll tax or pass a competency exam to qualify to vote. Women voted in comparable numbers to men during the 1960s elections, but weren't organized to rally behind one political party or female candidates.
3 State Offices
Elections in the 1960s increased the number of women holding state office, but voters still viewed women as home caretakers as opposed to public officials. Lurleen Burns Wallace led Alabama as governor in 1967 and died in office in 1968, but Wallace took over the position from her husband George whom courts banned from holding consecutive terms as the state's highest officer. The groundwork of women running for lower state offices during the 60s, however, helped lay the foundation for females elected to governorships in the 1970s, including Connecticut's Ella T. Grasso, elected in 1975, and Washington State's Dixy Lee Ray, elected in 1977.
4 National Presence
The 1960s saw more women elected to national office, including House member Patsy Mink from Hawaii, elected in 1965, and New York's Shirley Chisholm who served in Congress beginning in 1969. The first federal Senate race with two female candidates took place in 1960 between Lucia Cormier and Margaret Chase Smith for the Maine congressional seat. Smith later became the first woman to earn a major political party's convention nomination for president in 1964 when the Republican Party briefly considered her for the top spot on the national ticket.
- 1 American Memory Historical Collections from the Library of Congress: One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage -- An Overview
- 2 Learn NC -- North Carolina Digital History: The Women's Movement
- 3 American Civil Liberties Union: The Voting Rights Act
- 4 National Archives: 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- Women's Right to Vote
- 5 Catalyst Knowledge Center: Women in Government -- Quick Take