Women in Government

by Megan Stevens

Context

This lesson focuses on gender within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In crafting this lesson, there is an attempt to provide students with a provocative question that both represents the current political landscape while also asking them to tap into their historical knowledge of women’s rights and path to full citizenship. The lesson revolves around three key components to gendered history in the United States—labor participation, social norms, and political participation. The sources have been chosen with care in order to represent the obstacles that women face in each of these categories.

 In regards to labor, it focuses not just on early hindrances to women’s participation in the workforce but also on current data and statistics comparing the professional lives of men and women. The perceptions of women’s issues during the twenty-first century in the labor force revolves around the equal pay gap and the remnants of traditional motherhood inhibiting equal participation. Typically, this is caused by prejudices held by employers about women being able to balance their life to “have it all”. The data represented within the lesson is meant to demonstrate how these conceptions have real life implications–which can be seen through the employment rates of women (as well as mothers), occupations deemed as appropriate for women, and income disparities. The roots of these ideas come from generations of reinforcement. The purpose of the lesson is not simply to highlight barriers to the representation of women that still remain, but to trace their historical significance that brought us to this point. 

For women to work, in the twentieth century, meant relegating a women’s responsibilities to the family to the back burner.1Alicia Kessler-Harris. In Pursuit of Equity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 34. They were judged to have selfishly relinquished their role as mother in order to serve their own ambitions. Many women who chose to enter the labor force in this era did so out of economic necessity.2Lois Rita Helmbold and Ann Schofield. “Women’s Labor History, 1790-1945.” Reviews in American History, vol. 17, no. 4, (1989): 504. In reaction to this, a number of social reform women’s organizations advocated for legislation restricting women’s participation for their own protection.3Alicia Kessler-Harris. In Pursuit of Equity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 43. The belief was that if men were providing for their families appropriately, there would be no motivation for women to leave their protective sphere within the home.4Alicia Kessler-Harris. In Pursuit of Equity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 57-58. There was little acceptance of the notion that women’s work outside of the home could provide them with a sense of autonomy and citizenship never achievable otherwise.

For the category of social norms, the decision was made to focus largely on primary sources that would have been viewed by a large portion of the public. The public nature of these sources represents their acceptability among the population of the time. While some of these sources are written, others are advertisements and post cards that would have received wide-spread viewership. There was also a decision to include sources from a variety of decades in the mid to late twentieth century. While it may be far-fetched, one of the goals of having some more recent sources (from the 70s and 80s) is to have the students make the connection that the citizens who were young when these ads and articles were published represent the largest percentage of frequent voters today. Therefore, the impressions of women dictated within these sources could have had an impact on their perception of women’s ability to perform the work public offices require–especially that of the president.

In addition to this, the sources also try and highlight gender norms as they have impacted women’s participation in the labor force and politics. Men’s work was deemed as occupying the public sphere.5John Scanzoni and Greer Litton Fox. “Sex Roles, Family and Society: The Seventies and Beyond.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 42, no. 4 (1980): 744. Women’s work, on the other hand, was relegated to the private sphere that the home represented.6John Scanzoni and Greer Litton Fox. “Sex Roles, Family and Society: The Seventies and Beyond.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 42, no. 4 (1980): 744. The roles of women were as wives and mothers above all else. As a result of this, the identity of women was attached to those who occupied her home with her–her husband and her children. To break from these roles required women to participate in activities that were deemed as selfish—that sacrificed the well-being of their families for their own happiness and independence. Some sources selected are meant to demonstrate the backlash that these women received. In particular, the post cards demonstrating attitudes towards suffragettes at the turn of the twentieth century show families in disarray due to the mother figure’s participation in a movement to fight for her own rights.7“Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive: Holidays.” Edited by Catherine H Palczewski, University of Northern Iowa.

Lastly, political participation is perhaps the most important of the three categories as it most closely relates to the essential question itself. There are a variety of scholars who have commented on the reasons as to why women struggle to get elected as well as tend to have historically lower voter turnout than their male counterparts.8Jane Perlez “WOMEN, POWER AND POLITICS.” New York Times, vol. cxxii, no. 46,085. (1984): 22. The decision to select the primary sources and secondary sources for this portion of the lesson was one that was weighed carefully. The secondary sources have excerpts within them that can be pulled not only to provide students insight into why women struggle to get elected, but also includes thought-provoking information that will allow students to contemplate the reasons why these problems exist. In doing so, it is attempting to paint as full a picture as possible within a short period of time that one class period alots. The students will be able to work hands on with both primary and secondary sources in order to come to a conclusion on the essential question: Why hasn’t there been a female president?

Bibliography

Helmbold, Lois Rita, and Ann Schofield. “Women’s Labor History, 1790-1945.” Reviews in American History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1989, pp. 501–518. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2703424.

Kessler-Harris, Alicia. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

“Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive: Holidays.” Edited by Catherine H Palczewski, University of Northern Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, sites.uni.edu/palczews/NEW%20postcard%20webpage/CryingBaby.html.

Perlez, Jane., “WOMEN, POWER AND POLITICS.” New York Times, June 24, 1984, vol. cxxii, no. 46,085. p. 22.

Scanzoni, John, and Greer Litton Fox. “Sex Roles, Family and Society: The Seventies and Beyond.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 42, no. 4, 1980, pp. 743–756. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/351822.

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