When were women active in politics

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Measured by how many women testified before Congress, it seems women’s political mobilization peaked in the mid 20th Century:

First, far from retreating from public life in the post-suffrage and postwar decades, women and their organizations were out in force. Working through mass membership federations, to which Theda Skocpol has called our attention, women testified collectively on a wide range of issues including but not limited to foreign policy, affordable housing, children’s well-being, military readiness, public education, tax policy, and immigration. Although women’s rights were on these organizations’ agendas, their policy interests were much more encompassing. June Cleaver was in the home — but she was also in the House, testifying.

The figure below shows the history of appearances before congressional committees (and subcommittees) by women’s organizations, defined as a group that had a female signifier in its name, or whose membership was predominantly female, or which was oriented around women’s rights or well-being. The figure captures the number of appearances as a share of all hearings in every Congress from the 45th through the 106th. The growth in appearances is evident after suffrage and through the middle decades, but the rise is followed by a pronounced decline in the 1960s and again from the early 1980s onward. The only real uptick occurs in the 1970s, when the “second wave” women’s movement and Congressional allies were seeking to remove legal barriers to women’s equality.

The women’s movement notwithstanding, by the late 1990s, women’s organizations were actually less prominent on Capitol Hill in terms of hearing-adjusted appearances than they had been before women got the right to vote. And women’s groups of the late 20th century had far less presence than did their sister organizations of the June Cleaver era. I should note that the pattern for women-of-color groups is broadly similar, though the “up and down” pattern is less pronounced. With their broad policy agendas, women-of-color groups actually provide a clue to unraveling the mystery.

How might we account for these trends? Many distinct and intersecting forces drive broad social and political change, so it’s useful to think about proximate and underlying causes.

The most important proximate cause concerns the types of women’s groups that dominated the civic scene over the decades and, relatedly, the types of issues they embraced. Generally speaking, when women’s groups were at their most prominent on Capitol Hill, women’s civic universe was dominated by large, mass-membership organizations with broad policy agendas. Such groups included the League of Women Voters and its state and local affiliates (which accounted for more than 10 percent of all appearances), the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the American Association of University Women, the PTA, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

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