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The Political Power of Women

Pete Springer/OPB

You’ll hear it all over the press this week: ninety years ago women across the United States won the right to vote. This came, of course, after a decades-long suffragist movement and after a slow progression of women gaining rights, state by state. In Oregon, women were actually granted the right to vote eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920. To a large extent this was thanks to local activist Abigail Scott Duniway. Her story was told on this episode of Oregon Experience. Here’s part of it:

After arriving in Oregon, Duniway became a schoolteacher and then entered upon a life as a pioneer farm wife. When her husband, Ben, suffered financial setbacks and was later injured in an accident, Duniway set out to support the family, which by 1869 included six children. She found that, as a woman, her opportunities were severely limited. After another stint at teaching, an occupation that paid women only a fraction of what it paid men, she built up a successful millinery business. But these were only preludes to the discovery of her true vocation — that of relentless campaigner for equal rights. In 1871, Duniway began publishing The New Northwest, a weekly newspaper devoted to promoting not just suffrage, but an entire agenda of women’s issues.

Life has certainly changed dramatically since those years, but some disparity still exits between men and women. Some people say the fight today is mostly for working mothers: pay equity, access to affordable daycare, paid maternity leave, and more. According to Ann Crittenden, a former reporter for The New York Times:

The wage gap between mothers and childless women under age 35 is now greater than that between young men and women. Currently, 30-year-old American women without children earn 90% of men’s wages, while mothers of the same age and education are making only 70%.

And then there’s the relative power of women actually in politics. Katharine Firestone of Emerge Oregon says “there is nowhere near gender equity” in politics today. We may see powerhouses like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi on the national scene, but according to The Center for American Women and Politics, only 16.8 percent of the U.S. Congress is women. In the Oregon legislature it’s 27.8 percent. Firestone says that’s “nowhere near the 50 percent it should be.”

Women may have the right to vote, but how much political power do they actually have? From your experience, what women’s issues — if any — remain? And who’s fighting for them?


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