Now celebrated annually in March, Women’s History Month had its origins in 1981 when Congress authorized and requested the president to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982, as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress designated March of that year as “Women’s History Month.” And for the past 21 years, March has been recognized as Women’s History Month.
As 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the first female to be sworn in as a member of the U.S. Congress, it’s a good time — in honor of Women’s History Month — to examine how far women have come in holding public office, and how far they need to go.
Jeannette Rankin, a Republican suffragist and pacifist from Montana, was elected in 1916 — on the eve of America’s entry into World War I and four years before the 19th Amendment gave women nationwide the right to vote.
Fast forward a century later, and the numbers — compared with many other countries — don’t paint a pretty picture. Though women are about half of the U.S. population, they’re far short of representing that when it comes to elected office.
In the most recent rankings from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 104th — just ahead of Tajikistan and behind Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan and Madagascar — with 19.1 percent of its House of Representatives members being women.
In the past year alone, the U.S. has dropped nine places among the list of more than 190 countries.
The top five are Rwanda (61.3 percent), Bolivia (53.1 percent), Cuba (48.9 percent), Iceland (47.6 percent) and Nicaragua (45.7 percent).
The percentage of women in the U.S. Senate is only slightly higher, at 21 percent, than in the U.S. House.
But there are reasons to be optimistic.
Other sectors of government show a greater level of female representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Among statewide executives, 23.7 percent are females.
And 24.8 percent of the members of state legislatures are women — 25.7 percent of state house/assembly representatives and 22.4 percent of state senators.
Pennsylvania, however, has some work to do. It ranks 41st among the 50 states, with just 18.2 percent of its state House and Senate members being female. Republican Rep. Mindy Fee is the sole woman in the Lancaster County state delegation.
The commonwealth has never elected a woman as governor or U.S. senator, and none of its current 18 U.S. House members are women. Pennsylvania has only ever had seven female members of Congress.
To be clear, this is not a partisan issue. We hope women — particularly the younger generation — start to see politics and public service as something to aspire to, no matter the party with which they identify. Their perspectives on everything from family leave to foreign policy matter.
Of the 46 women in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, 25 are Republican and 21 are Democratic.
And of the four U.S. governors who are female, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin are Republicans and Oregon’s Kate Brown and Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo are Democrats.
A fifth, Republican Nikki Haley, recently left South Carolina’s governorship to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
While Democrat Hillary Clinton is the only woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party, both the Republicans and the Democrats have nominated female vice presidential candidates — Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro, respectively.
So why don’t more women run for office? A study by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox offers some insight.
Their research showed that women tended to underestimate their qualifications, perceiving themselves differently from men with similar credentials. Women also were more likely than men to view campaigning as difficult, and were less likely to be encouraged by others to run for political office.
These are the kinds of barriers that don’t disappear overnight.
The 2015-16 U.S. Congress did have a record 108 women in its ranks. The new Congress is down to 104 females — although the number of women senators inched up from 20 to 21.
The most encouraging numbers, though, might be the local and state figures reported by the Center for American Women and Politics, because of what they could signal for the future.
Women have been making inroads faster at those levels — getting their feet in the door, so to speak.
And that creates an ever-increasing pool of potential candidates for federal offices down the road. Both major parties ought to make a concerted effort to see that more women make their way to the halls of power.