But achieving the right to vote, while ending one phase of the women’s rights movement, set the stage for the equally arduous process of securing women a measure of power in local and national political office. Scholars have debated whether the women’s movement underwent fundamental change or sustained continuity in the years before and after 1920.11 However, most agree that Rankin and those who followed her into Congress during the 1920s faced a herculean task in consolidating their power and in sustaining legislation that was important to women. Several factors contributed to these conditions.
The Progressive Era, in which several waves of activists moving from the local to national level pursued democratic reforms within political, social, and cultural contexts, had helped sustain the women’s rights movement. But the Progressive Era waned after the United States entered World War I. With its passing, the public enthusiasm for further efforts decreased, contributing to women’s difficulty in the early 1920s to use their new political gain as an instrument for social change.
Just when women gained the vote, voter participation declined nationally. Fewer men and women were attuned to national political issues that increasingly were defined by special-interest groups and lobbies.
As Carrie Chapman Catt pointed out, in winning the vote, reformers lost the single unifying cause that appealed to a broad constituency of women. The amalgam of the other reform causes tended to splinter the women’s rights movement because smaller communities of women were investing their energies across a larger field of competing programs.
Women, contrary to the expectations of many on both sides of the suffrage debate, did not vote as a single, unified bloc. They split over party affiliation, key issues, and the vagaries of parochial politics. They also voted in far lower percentages than predicted. Finally, to the consternation of feminist reformers, they did not vote independently; instead, their voting preferences tended to mirror those of the men in their families.
Complicating these factors was the overarching reality that the political culture would take decades to adjust to the enfranchisement of women. The expectation was that women would be loyal followers under the banner of one or the other major party with men charting the course. Emily N. Blair, a Missouri suffragist and the vice president of the Democratic National Committee beginning in 1924 observed, “Women were welcome to come in as workers but not as co-makers of the world. For all their numbers, they seldom rose to positions of responsibility or power. The few who did fitted into the system as they found it. All standards, all methods, all values, continued to be set by men.”12 Catt made a similar assessment, noting that there was, at least in one sense, continuity between the suffrage struggle and the 1920s: women’s marginalization. She noted that “the unwillingness to give women even a small share of the political positions which would enable them to score advantage to their ideals” was a condition all too familiar for “any old time suffragist.”13
In Congress particularly, the pioneer Congresswomen, with several notable exceptions, were far outside the party power structure. Not only did they face institutional prejudices, but nearly three-quarters of the first generation were dependent on their husbands or their fathers for their positions. Moreover, these first women in Congress could not agree among themselves which form the political participation of American women should take, as public officeholders or as participants in nonpartisan reform groups.
Nevertheless, fortified by the constitutional victory of suffrage reformers in 1920, the handful of new women in Congress embarked on what would become a century-long odyssey to broaden women’s roles in government so that, in Catt’s words, they might “score advantage to their ideals.” The experiences of these pioneer women Members and their successors compose the story of a remarkable political odyssey during the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
11Historians debate this point vigorously. William L. O’Neill, in his Feminism in America: A History, 2nd revised ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), argues that feminists themselves were responsible for the failure to mobilize women voters in the 1920s. O’Neill believes that the decision taken in the 20th century to focus on the vote to the exclusion of other “social” issues ultimately undermined feminist reform efforts by: 1) prolonging the suffrage struggle and 2) depriving the movement of cohesiveness after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Nancy Cott, in The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), challenged O’Neill’s assertions about the shortcomings of the feminist movement, insisting in part that though the movement struggled in the arena of electoral politics after 1920, it flourished among a host of new volunteer and civic women’s organizations. In this regard, Cott sees more continuity between the pre- and post-1920 eras than does either O’Neill or William Chafe, in The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Both O’Neill and Chafe stress discontinuity. Chafe suggests that women “were caught in a no-win situation” because a shift away from mass political participation had devalued the importance of the ballot. “It appears that the entire political culture was shifting,” he observed, “and even though supposed progress had been made in democratizing the electoral process during the 1910s through direct election of senators, the initiative, referendum and reform, direct primaries, and woman suffrage, the actual value of casting votes at the ballot box had diminished substantially.” See Chafe’s discussion, The Paradox of Change: 31.
12Quoted in Woloch, Women and the American Experience: 357.
13Quoted in Melanie Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854–1924 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003): 194.