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Women’s representation is the heart of the democracy reform movement

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams may have been the first woman to engage in democracy reform in the United States.

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Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for policy changes that would result in more women holding elected office.

This is the first in a series of opinion pieces we are publishing during Women's History Month to recognize the contributions of women to the democracy reform movement.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband at the Continental Congress in 1776, warning John: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." That famous quote is a timely reminder that women have long been at the forefront of democracy reform to demand that our voices be heard.

As our country celebrates a century of the 19th Amendment and the "universal" suffrage that came with its ratification, we also must reflect on the slow and minimal progress we've made in the past century.

Despite historic numbers of women in both houses of Congress, the United States ranks 82nd in the world for women's representation in national legislatures. And unfortunately, progress for women — especially women of color and conservative women — will continue to be slow because we have antiquated electoral norms that favor the status quo. The Founding Fathers didn't create a system or a country to benefit or include women; they built one to support and represent the powerholders at the table: white men.

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There are various strategies to advance women's representation and leadership, but the data shows the most impactful and enduring tactics must include tackling an unrepresentative — and, at its heart, undemocratic — electoral system. The only way to achieve balanced representation of women in our lifetimes is by making changes to the rules and systems that have reigned unquestioned for more than two centuries. Fortunately, the United States has a long history of structural reforms to level the playing field and create equal opportunities to participate including the 19th Amendment (1920), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), Title IX (1972) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) — all of which reformed institutions, not the individuals marginalized by institutions.

Problems remain. Women are underrepresented because of the political gatekeepers and structural barriers that hinder their chances of success at every stage of the electoral process, not because of a lack of ambitious, and qualified, women to run for office. According to RepresentWomen's research, many of the countries that rank above the United States for women's legislative representation have party and state rules that increase the number of women who run and subsequently win, rules which can easily translate to the American electoral process.

Our political parties are not strangers to affirmative action rules or even gender quotas. In 1978, the Democratic National Committee implemented the Equal Division Rule, requiring state delegations to the national convention to be gender balanced. At its heart, the rule is a gender quota for elected positions within the Democratic Party; a rule that has been upheld by the Supreme Court and could be applied to other elections and races. Political parties are inherent gatekeepers in the electoral process and have a transformative role to play in balanced political representation.

Even after women enter an election, they face structural and gendered roadblocks including hyper-partisanship, a winner-take-all voting system and a power of incumbency that tends to benefit white men already in power.

RepresentWomen has found that municipalities with a ranked-choice voting electoral system often have better representation of women and people of color. As of January, 49 percent of the city council seats and 50 percent of the mayoral offices that use RCV are held by women. Additionally, so-called RCV increases civility during elections, eliminates the threat of vote-splitting and decreases the cost for candidates to run and cities to hold elections. The design of legislative districts also impacts the chances that women will get elected when they run. Our research found that states that use multimember districts for their legislatures are electing twice the number of women as single-member districts in the same states.

At the heart of the democracy reform movement is creating a truly representative governing system, which includes increasing opportunities for women and people of color to participate in our electoral process. There are many amazing women and women-run initiatives to create a more effective and reflective democracy. They include:

  • Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates balloting by mail to increase participation especially of voters who traditionally don't have easy access to the polls.
  • Jessica Byrd, founder and CEO of Three Point Strategies, a political consultancy that supports candidates running to implement transformative change and further social justice.
  • Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, which encourages women to consider running for office.
  • Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, which equips women to run for office.
  • Susannah Wellford, founder and CEO of Running Start, which provides young women with the tools and skills needed to run for office.
  • Michelle Whittaker, director of RCV for Maryland, a coalition of organizations working to bring ranked-choice voting to Maryland.

Suffragist and Equal Rights Amendment advocate Alice Paul said of the women's movement: "I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end."

Our democratic mosaic is far from done, but luckily there are many individuals and groups adding their stones. Our "stone" is to research and advance systems strategies to increase the number of women who run, win, serve and lead so that Abigail Adams' plea to "remember the ladies" is finally fulfilled.

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One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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