Being a woman in today’s economy is a bit of a mixed bag. Women are doing better at work, but they still make less than men, and for women of color, the gap is particularly egregious. Issues such as paid maternity leave and sick leave are largely at the whim of their employers or dependent on where they live. Their voices are more respected at work and in politics, but the men around them still manage to talk over them often and move their way up the ranks faster.
Life for women in the American economy is certainly better than it was 100 years ago, when the US enacted the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. But it isn’t exactly stellar. Women, and in particular women of color and in other disadvantaged groups, are still behind. Women experience higher rates of poverty. They are paid less for their work. While single women outpace single men in owning homes, they get a worse deal in housing transactions.
It’s not that women voting hasn’t made a difference. There is evidence that women’s suffrage helps shift public spending toward health, education, and children and that in the US, it contributed to greater overall government spending. The rising tide lifts all boats, and women are in the boat. But despite all these years of voting — for some women more, for some women less — women, overall, still haven’t been able to achieve complete equality in the economy.
The question is why. How is it that women voting hasn’t led to more for women?
Turns out not all women think alike
The explanation for why women haven’t achieved as much economic progress as thought through voting rights is manifold but, at its core, also pretty basic, explained Joan Williams, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings and director of the Center for WorkLife Law: Women voters aren’t solely defined by their gender — let alone a cohesive feminist conception of it.
“Women are people,” Williams said. “Women are Americans; not all women are feminists, and not all feminists agree on what’s best for women.”
Americans historically have been much less receptive to social and economic distribution than other industrialized countries, and the culture of individualism isn’t limited to American men. While many women are feminists, not all of them are — there are women whose primary issue is abortion rights, and there are women whose primary issue is opposition to abortion. And even among feminists, the critique of the system isn’t monolithic, nor is the list of priorities.
After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 — and it is worth noting that many states gave women the right to vote before that happened, and that it took women of color much longer to get to vote in many places — there was the expectation that women as a more cohesive voting bloc might emerge. Some policy directives moved accordingly.
There was the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which gave government social support to women and babies, and the Cable Act, which allowed American women to keep their citizenship if they married immigrants. But that momentum to legislate around women quickly dissipated. Sheppard-Towner, for example, was allowed to expire in 1929.
“The common story is that politicians figured out there is no voting bloc,” said Christina Wolbrecht, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage.
More than four decades would pass before President John F. Kennedy would sign the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963.
The gender gap has become more pronounced in voting since the 1980s and the election of President Ronald Reagan, as more women have moved toward the Democratic Party and men toward Republicans. But broken down by race, women voters are a different story. White women still tend to vote Republican (though in the Trump era, they seem to be moving left) and are quite divided on many issues. They have benefited from years of white supremacy and economic inequality, and many vote to keep it that way. Hispanic and Asian women tend to vote more Democratic than their male counterparts. Black women are the clearest coalition: They vote for Democrats overwhelmingly.
“The Black women voting bloc really does represent the Black community because so many Black men are not on the voting rolls because of early death, incarceration, and disenfranchisement,” said Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.
In short, women in the US have never emerged as a cohesive voting bloc with a dedicated set of economic policy goals.
“The fact that women don’t vote dramatically different than men do throughout this 100-year period tells us that women were always just as capable of making just as dumb decisions as men do, or as smart, depending on how you want to understand the American electorate,” Wolbrecht said.
Women voting makes a difference in the broader economy
Just because women haven’t been able to achieve full economic equality doesn’t mean their votes haven’t made a difference in the economy. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it has.
“Traditionally, women have been more in charge of children, more in charge of social support, so there is broadly support among women for social spending, health spending, spending on their kids’ education,” said Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University. “But when you think of women’s economic advancement, the fact is it is really dependent on women’s choices in their own lives.”
His research has shown that women’s rights is highly correlated with economic development and that suffrage for women has made a difference in how public spending is directed to health, education, and children. A 1999 paper argued that women voting prior to the 19th Amendment and once it was passed coincided with increases in government spending and revenue and more liberal voting patterns from representatives.
After the 19th Amendment was passed, many Black women in the country were still unable to vote, so many of the ramifications of women’s suffrage went disproportionately to white communities. In a 2015 paper, researchers looked at local education expenditures in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina in the two decades following the 19th Amendment and found that women voting was responsible for up to two-thirds of an increase in spending. However, it wasn’t equally distributed.
“We found that there was a pretty significant and detectable uptick in local education spending in these three states after the 19th Amendment, but it was much more pronounced for white schools than for segregated Black schools,” said Celeste Carruthers, a University of Tennessee economist and one of the researchers behind the paper.
That exacerbated educational inequality and, ultimately, economic inequality.
A separate 2012 paper that looked at the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded voting rights for Black Americans, found a similar effect in terms of resource allocation. Once Black men and women were given the more expanded right to vote, Black communities got a greater share of their states’ resources.
Women advancing in the economy is bigger than voting
Many of the gains for women economically have not necessarily come through voting. Advancement grew out of mobilization during World War II and the expansion of economic activity thereafter. As women became viewed as more equal citizens, they joined the workforce and started to be able to talk to each other about shared experiences — they discovered they weren’t alone as individuals in being paid less and being discriminated against at work.
“The right to vote is important, but the big changes have to do more with social change and role models as opposed to formal voting rights,” Doepke said.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been important policy developments that have boosted women’s economic position. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, established a minimum wage and overtime pay that was applied to both men and women workers. As mentioned, the Equal Pay Act became law in 1963, and in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act barred companies from firing employees for being pregnant.
Still, much of the change women need economically, perhaps specifically at work, depends not only on public policy but on the private sector as well. A good paid parental leave policy or flexible work hours that accommodate caretaking needs largely depends on where women work. The 19th Amendment assumes that the formal structure of laws is the key to equality, but there is also the issue of deeply entrenched social and organizational norms. A law can’t walk into a CEO’s office and stop him from choosing a man over a woman for a promotion or interrupt a behind-the-scenes conversation about whether a potential hire might soon decide to have kids.
“Men need roads, men need sewers, and men need public transit systems. Women need all that, and they also need affordable child care, work hours that don’t assume that any responsible worker is always available to work, and not to get fired if they have a baby or need to take care of it,” Williams said.
These sorts of issues also depend on where women live. Heather Boushey, president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, noted that progress has been made at the state and city level in achieving paid family leave, paid sick days, and universal pre-K. But there are gaps: Those policies aren’t really in place at the federal level, pay disparity still exists, and a lot of the gains women have made haven’t been shared equally.
“You have seen a lot of progress for women at the top of the ladder, but it hasn’t filtered down,” she said. Home care workers weren’t covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act until 2013. Women of color in particular continue to experience high rates of poverty.
What’s needed is more policy change as well as cultural change, and how to overhaul American culture to make it more accommodating to the specific needs of women.
But right now the concern is that women might be losing ground economically and at work in American culture. The Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have hit women particularly hard. Women and women of color specifically have been disproportionately affected by layoffs and find themselves likelier to be essential workers. And with children not in school, parents are performing a tough balancing act between child care and work, and often, child care falls more on mothers, to the point some might wind up having to drop out of the workforce.
“I have grave, grave fears this crisis is going to set back women’s economic equity for decades,” Boushey said.
Doepke said there’s another, more optimistic possibility: that, like during World War II, mobilization around Covid-19 will result in economic advancement. Even if their roles aren’t equal, men can’t escape the implications of their kids not going to school. “Nobody can hide,” he said. “I would not be surprised if over the medium term, this kind of crisis will do a lot to accelerate this change.”
It’s not just women voting that matters — it’s also having women in the room
More and more women have made it into elected office over the past 100 years, and more recently, that trend has accelerated. And having more women in the room matters. While female lawmakers aren’t only focused on women’s issues, economic or otherwise, having more women in government leads to more legislation that benefits women (and in general getting more done).
Perry pointed to the CROWN Act, legislation banning natural hair discrimination by employers and educational institutions, which was first introduced by California state Sen. Holly Mitchell in 2019. It has now been adopted by multiple states. “That would not have occurred without the influence of Black women and without the rise in power of Black women,” he said.
A record number of women, and a record number of Black women, are running for Congress in 2020. And Sen. Kamala Harris, who is of Black and South Asian heritage, is on the Democratic ticket as vice president. These are the types of advancements that result in a difference in the economy and, hopefully, economic rights and opportunities for women.
“We’re sitting on the cusp of discovering what that increased and very purposeful political power can mean for Black women lawmakers in Washington as well as elsewhere when it comes to addressing, resolving, remediating, and closing the gap between cultural power, political power, and economic power in this country,” said Martha Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University.
Getting women into the room and at the table matters, says Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an organization focused on mobilizing Black voters. Once at the table, she said, they bring their experiences, their whole lives, their whole selves to a place where decision-making is happening. But this also comes down to an issue of culture and of values, and it’s not always something policymakers or women casting their votes can force.
“While we have made significant gains with regard to both gender and race, we still hold up, in many ways, a country and a society that just simply does not value women and girls,” she said. “The way that shows up is in the devaluing of all the issues related to women — whether that’s work, whether that’s women’s contribution to our ever-changing and ever-evolving world, there’s a devaluing of it. It’s the crux of the work that remains to be done.”
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