After passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, laws benefiting women and children were enacted by lawmakers who feared an adverse reaction if they failed to pass legislation of concern to women. As noted, at the urging of women’s groups, Congress passed the Cable Act to restore rights of U.S citizenship to women who married non-Americans. However, the expectations of suffrage movement leaders that women would use the ballot to tend political corruption and war, as well as to pressure politicians to pass progressive legislation, were quickly dashed.
By mid-1920s, demand of women activists were no longer well received and in fact defeat was more common than victory. Not only did it become clear that women as a group often were divided on the desirability of certain laws and changes but also that many women seemed to be totally unconcerned and uninterested in politics. Evidence of this limited interest can be seen in the level of electoral turnout in the 1920s. Although the figures are incomplete, they suggest that in contrast with nearly two-thirds of all men, only one-third of all women eligible voted. Turnout may even have been lower for immigrant, black, and Southern women.
Additionally, only a handful of women actually ran for office or tried to become involved in campaign activities. Moreover, in the early years after participating in decisions, the few who actually were elected or appointed to political office came from the ranks of those who ran as stand-ins or replacements for their husbands. Thus, the removal of legal barriers to political participation failed to result in equality between the sexes in the political arena.
To examine why women’s political activity failed to meet the expectations of the suffrage leaders, we first must recall that the political rights granted to women by the Nineteenth Amendment were not universal public goods. In 1920, it was still possible to exclude certain classes of women, most notably immigrant and black women, from exercising the franchise through a variety of laws. Politicians, political parties, and society in general created hurdles that prevented women from taking a more active role in the political process. The right to run for office was not willingly granted. Additionally, individual women could decide if, and how much, they wanted to participate in politics. And because many women lacked the education, money, contacts, and / or training for public office, their activity in that sphere was even more limited.
These conditions alone, however, cannot account for the persistence of inequality in the political arena. It is our contention that the most significant factor that kept women from exercising their political rights and thus fostered their exclusion from certain aspects of politics, in fact, has been the existence of negative cultural attitudes about women’s political activity. The legacy of negative views can also be used to explain the continued lack of full political equality for women. Negative cultural attitudes have affected women’s participation in several ways. Specifically, they have made possible the imposition of cultural sanctions and overt discrimination against women who may have wanted to, or actually tried to take an active role in politics.
Because politics is often viewed as a “man’s job”, they also have prevented many women from becoming involved in politics or acquiring the skills or personal attributes necessary for political activity. Thus, cultural restrictions on the political activity of women have resulted in two additional barriers to full political equality for women: the lack of preparation for political activity by women and sex discrimination.
In modern times, there is evidence that the current women’s movement has had some impact on these kinds of cultural stereotypes.
Between 1972 and 1980, for instance, there has been a marked increase in the proportion of the public agreeing with the statement that “Women should have an equal role with men in running business, Industry and government. In addition to the increase in overall support for equal roles for women in politics, there also has been a sharp increase in the willingness of individuals to vote for a woman for president.