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The BEE-coming of Women in Politics

Updated: Aug 5

Despite women making up 50% of the United States population, Women only make up 28% of the 118th Congress. This number is a record high as women overcome systemic barriers and bring their own seats to political tables. While it is important to celebrate the wins women are making in politics, it is still vital to recognize the continuous issue of underrepresentation.

As a college student, I have developed a greater understanding of the barriers that women have to face in politics. Compared to the diluted version of women’s studies I sat through in high school, I recognized that a lack of education contributes to this issue. This blog post will cover the history of women in politics that is not typically taught to raise awareness amongst our readers.

The Hidden History of Women’s Right to Vote

The first-wave feminists and suffragettes typically taught in history curricula often include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage, and Lucretia Mott. However, what if I told you that these feminists were inspired by their indigenous neighbors living the lives suffragettes desired? The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy is composed of 6 indigenous nations located in upstate New York. Haudenosaunee women were the blueprint for first-wave feminism as these indigenous nations were gynocentric and gynocratic. Women in these nations, amongst several others across the land, were represented in positions of power as clan mothers, safe from violence and misogyny, and held the right to their bodies, children, and property. It is no coincidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage, and Lucretia Mott also resided in upstate New York, and the first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, NY. There are several primary source documents from these women observing indigenous women, forming relationships with the indigenous nations, and even wishing to be adopted into these clans. Despite proof of these historical relationships, this version of history is rarely, if ever, taught in a typical history curriculum.

Indigenous women were not the only names withheld from women’s rights history. African American women intersectionality experience gender and racial oppression yet were excluded by African American men and White women in racial and feminist movements. African American women strategized to advocate their inclusion in the 15th and 19th Amendments. In support, women such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Sojourner Truth condemned the exclusion of African American women from the 15th Amendment. The National American Woman Suffrage Association excluded African American women from attending conventions and refused to recognize the issues African American women uniquely experienced. As a result, women formed organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Charlotte Forten Grimke. Ida B. Wells also formed the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first organization focused on suffrage. Although the 15th Amendment excluded African American women, the 19th Amendment granted all women the right to vote. However, states procrastinated the ratification and enforcement of the Amendments. African Americans faced disenfranchisement and voter suppression through poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and intimidation. It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the narrative changed, and states were prohibited from issuing literacy tests, collecting poll taxes, and other disenfranchisement strategies. From 1965 to 1969, the number of African American Americans registered to vote jumped from 23% to 61%. Unfortunately, following the 2013 Shelby v. Holder SCOTUS decision, parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were deemed unconstitutional leading to the continuation of voter suppression today. In order to move towards a future free of voter suppression, it is imperative to know the origins.

Significant Firsts

Ironically, while women gained the right to vote in 1920, the first woman was actually elected to Congress in 1916. Her name was Jeannette Rankin and she sat as the first woman in the House of Representatives from 1917 to 1919. However, women’s political firsts go even further into history.

Women began running for congressional offices as soon as 1866 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first to run for a seat in the House. Several women followed Stanton’s steps including Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood who ran for president on the Equal Rights Party Ticket. Slowly, campaigns for local and state-level seats with women as candidates were successful. In 1894, Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly, and Frances Klock were the first women elected to a state legislature.

In the early to mid-1900’s women began to win seats at the federal level. Unfortunately, it took longer for women of color and African American women to be elected to office. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress and it was not until 1989 that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. Today only 9% of Congress is composed of women of color.

While women have accomplished an extensive list of political milestones, there is still work to do. Systemic and internalized barriers hinder young women’s chances to run for office. A significant limitation is the lack of resources, connections, and training for women interested in politics. Several organizations are committed to filling the gaps and encouraging women to run for office. By hosting training workshops, funding campaigns, and establishing nationwide networks women in politics are more supported than ever. The Center for American Women and Politics lists organizations dedicated to women's political empowerment HERE.

With undergraduate students as our target audience, there is no better time than now to start your journey in politics. BTD Inc. is collaborating with Running Start to host an Elect Her workshop, on August 8, 2023, at 7 p.m. EST, which trains young women to be confident, connected, and capable to run for office. If you are interested in helping achieve equal representation of women in politics consider registering for our workshop HERE.

For over a century, women have paved the way and opened doors for future generations of women to explore political paths. Numerous organizations continue their work by providing resources for women to engage in politics at all levels. Whether you are considering running for a student government position or dream of earning a federal seat, your representation matters. In the face of adversity, imposter syndrome, and systemic barriers, there is always a larger network of women supporting women to help along the way.


Bailey, Dr. M. (2022, September 13). Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights (U.S. National Park Service). Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights.

Milestones for Women in American Politics. (2023). Center for American Women and Politics.

Organizations for Women’s Political Empowerment. (2023). Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.

Voting Rights for African Americans. (n.d.). [Web page]. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 19, 2023, from

Wagner, S. (2001). Sisters In Spirit. Native Voices.

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