Democracy Is Feminist
August 26, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day. Proposed in 1971 by Bella Abzug, the formidable feminist organizer and federal lawmaker from New York, and passed as a joint resolution by Congress in 1973, Women’s Equality Day recognizes the fight for women’s suffrage and hard won ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Around the time Women’s Equality Day was first envisioned, Abzug joined forces with other leaders and activists—Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisolm, and Fannie Lou Hamer among them—to form the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). Through both endeavors they sought to acknowledge that political representation belongs at the center of the quest for gender justice—and, according to the NWPC archives, that “legal, economic, and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.”
Historically, women in the United States have participated voraciously in civic life, registering and voting at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980. Black women show up at the polls and in voter mobilization efforts in even greater numbers, with turnout rates of upward of 66% in 2020. In July 1972, Steinem wrote for the newly launched Ms. magazine, “Black women come out stronger on just about every feminist issue, whether it is voting for a woman candidate, ending violence and militarism, or believing that women are just as rational as men and have more human values.”
The same article by Steinem forecasted, “We’ve been delivering our votes [and] now women want something in return. Nineteen seventy-two is just the beginning …” And in many ways, it was. That year, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) handily passed the U.S. Senate and seemed destined for swift ratification. Chisolm’s public service—as the first Black Congresswoman, followed by her groundbreaking 1972 presidential campaign—altered the discourse about whether “White Male Only” remained a qualifier to lead the nation. And by January 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, affirming a constitutional right to abortion.
Fast forward half a century, and Vice President Kamala Harris shattered the White House glass ceiling. Women’s overall leadership on Capitol Hill has continued to climb, reaching an all-time high in the 118th Congress—just over 28% (149 members). In the House, women broke records in the 2022 midterms, with 124 now serving, 27 of whom are Black and 18 are Latin. Women now comprise nearly a third of all legislators and elected executives, including a record 12 serving as governor.