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The First 100 Years—Women and the Vote

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hillary J. Knepper
September 12, 2020 

Here we are—100 years past the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, itself a testament to the challenging politics of a diverse democratic constituency with evolving social justice values. Today, as history is being rediscovered and this retelling broadens our understanding of women’s’ path to full citizenship, we must give voice to all our trailblazers. There is power in who is named and heard. While the names of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement are well known—Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone—our African American women suffrage leaders are less so; Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin. What about Native American women suffrage leaders, such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) and Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin? And what about Adelina Otero Warren, a Mexican-American suffragette and Mabel Lee, a leading Chinese-American suffragette, who participated in public action at a time when Chinese-Americans were denied citizenship and were disenfranchised?

Voting in the United States has a complicated history. Not even all white men were eligible to vote until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1776, New Jersey granted the right to vote to some women, becoming the first in the nation, but quickly reneged in 1807. In 1870, the 15th amendment granted African American men the right to vote, which in turn led to voting barriers emerging around the country to prevent their vote. In 1872, Sojourner Truth was among more than a dozen women who were turned away or arrested for trying to vote. The first state to grant women the vote (in State elections) was Wyoming in 1890. In 1924, Native Americans were granted the right to vote, but, similar to the Jim Crow South, many states continued to disenfranchise them. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 removed barriers to immigration and citizenship (and ultimately the right to vote), notably for Japanese and Chinese-Americans, effectively cancelling the final Chinese Exclusion Act remnants. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act aimed to once and for all end racial discrimination, both for African and Asian Americans. But as we know, this fight continues.

So, how does voting align with women in the public workforce? It is surprisingly paralleled. On June 5th, 2020 the Women’s Bureau celebrated 100 years since its establishment within the U.S. Department of Labor. The Bureau,“Is the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.” Among its many studies, two stand out that align with 100 years of suffrage. First, in 1920, the Bureau’s study on women’s opportunity for federal position examinations led to the ruling by the Civil Service Commission that federal examinations must be open to men and women. The second study, in 1922, examined African American women’s working conditions. Who were the leaders of this bureau? Mary Anderson served as the first Director of the Women’s Bureau (1924-1944), Elizabeth Duncan Koontz served as the first African American Director (1969-1973), Carmen Rosa Maymi (1973-1977) as the first Hispanic Director and Shinae Chun as the first Asian American Director (2001-2009). The impact of the Women’s Bureau on policy was broad; conducting studies, writing reports and pushing policy agendas. Notable successes include the provision for gender in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, initiatives in the 2000s like Girls E-Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology and a more recent focus on national paid leave and affordable child care.

As Nancy Tate, former executive director of the national League of Women Voters, notes in an interview by Lauren Bock Mullins, “Looking at the historical context is a less threatening way of enabling one to stand back and look at who can play a role in our democracy.” Over the decades, the numbers of women in federal service have continued to increase. In 1976, just over 10% of professional positions were held by women, with another 20% serving in administrative positions. Today, women account for about 44% of these positions. Women in the Senior Executive Service now account for 35% of the workforce, compared with about 15% in the private sector. Yet men represented about 54% of the total federal workforce and now hold about 66% of high paying jobs ($150,000 and above). Of those individuals in federal service with disabilities, about 36% are women. Of the women in federal service, about 24% are African-American, 8% are LatinX and 2% are Native American.

Affecting real inclusion in public service is up to us—the professional administrators and academics; through hiring practices, mentoring and through the classroom. As Carla J. Kimbrough notes, “…public administrators and educators must increase our comfort with inserting race in public policy discussions and lesson plans.” Scutelnicu, Knepper, and Tekula agree, noting that, “…women’s education in public administration programs and the literature to which they are exposed affect the perspectives and opinions they carry into their careers.” As our diverse voices join together, we create a better, more inclusive, more responsive society. Power and influence matter. This is why voting is so important for women in public service.


Author: Dr. Hillary J. Knepper, MPA, Associate Professor, Interim Associate Provost for Student Success, Pace University: [email protected]. She had 20 years’ administrative experience as a practitioner in the public and nonprofit sectors prior to her work in academia. Her most recent work appears in Public Administration Review, Teaching Public Administration, the Journal of Public Affairs Education, Public Integrity, and Public Administration Quarterly. She is the co-editor of the Journal of Health & Human Services Administration (so email her if you’re interested in publishing there).

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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