It’s easy to forget in 2019 that there are still women alive today born at a time when women did not have the right to vote in the United States.
In the grand history of our country, women holding elected office is a relatively recent development. It took until 1916 for a woman, Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, to be elected to Congress. In New York, the first woman representative, Republican Ruth Pratt, was elected in 1929, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the first woman senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, would be elected. Despite a narrowing of the political gender gap, it is still wide.
Nationwide, state legislatures clock in at 28.7 percent women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York does slightly better, at 32.9 percent. Only one state, Nevada, has a slight majority of women in its legislature at 50.8 percent (Guam, a US territory, also breaks the majority mark, at 66.7 percent.) According to the Census Bureau, 50.8 percent of the nation’s population is female.
“Over the past few years we’ve seen record numbers of women running for office, but prior to that running for office was very difficult, and a very difficult decision to make,” said Assemblywoman Jamie Romeo, D-Irondequoit. “In the past we had not seen as many women stepping forward to run for office or being recruited. You had this difference, the number of women that were constituencies did not represent the number of women in office.”
Romeo pointed to a complicated issue when it comes to women in the political sphere; women often don’t run for office. This holds true even in the era of the most diverse Congress in United States history and a record-breaking number of women taking office nationwide. In all, 42 percent of candidates running on the Democratic side for the House were women in 2018, and 12 percent on the Republican side. The number of women in the House is 23.7 percent, a rise from 19.4 percent in the last election cycle.
Romeo said equity is still an ongoing process.
“We’re coming up on the hundredth anniversary of women having the right to vote, the suffragist movement, this is a continuation of women trying to advance and make sure they have an equal seat at that table,” Romeo said.
The numbers for mayors nationwide is similar to the numbers in Congress and state legislatures. As of March 2018, the US Conference of Mayors reported 21.8 percent of mayors of cities with populations over 30,000 were women. Of the top 100 largest cities in the country, 10 are led by women of color, seven of whom are black.
“Traditionally, women saw the political sphere and elected office as a man’s job, and of course, we see that changing with the largest elected class of women in Congress,” said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. “Women are starting to recognize that if they want to see policy and procedures change, they have to run for office and get into positions to make changes happen.”
The Rochester region, in particular, has a storied history of women as political leaders, from Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony to the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. Rochester has long served as a home for strong, trailblazing women, and Warren said that energy still powers leaders today.
“Here in Rochester, we had the fortunate experience that that disparity of limiting women was never really instilled or ingrained in us, because of the women like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth and men like Frederick Douglass,” Warren said.
Monroe County government isn’t exempt from that history either. Republican Cheryl Dinolfo has served as county executive since 2015, following an 11-year run in office by fellow Republican Maggie Brooks, proof that the local empowerment of women is a nonpartisan effort.
Dinolfo formerly served as Monroe County clerk beginning in 2004.
“What propelled me into public service was the spirit of Monroe County and the people here, and knowing that I was able to make a difference in their lives, to improve their quality of life for people and to help our businesses thrive as well,” Dinolfo said.
Dinolfo has marked her run in office as a staunch advocate for business growth in the county, with a catchphrase of “Monroe County is open for business.” As of 2012, there were 20,290 women-owned businesses in Monroe County, according to the US Census Bureau, out of a total 55,997.
“If you think about that, it’s a significant number, and it’s a significant symbol of the strength of women in Monroe County,” Dinolfo said.
Female representation in local public office is mixed. Four of nine members of Rochester City Council, including President Loretta Scott, are women, while women make up only seven of the 29-member Monroe County Legislature. There’s a complex web of reasons why representation often is lagging. For example, party lines are sometimes a better indicator of bias than voter gender. According to a PEW Research study, 69 percent of Democrat women reported that they hoped to see a female president in their lifetime, compared with 46 percent of Democratic men. Twenty percent of Republican women responded the same, and 16 percent of Republican men.
Arguably the largest issue is that women are simply less likely to run for office. In fact, women aren’t necessarily disadvantaged at the polls. According to a 2015 Harvard study, in close general primaries between male and female candidates between 1982 and 2012, women Democrats won 42.1 percent of the time. Republican women won 57.9 percent of the time. Likewise, a 2016 report from the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance found that women have similar election results as men in mayoral elections. Instead, for a variety of reasons, women are simply less likely to run.
Dinolfo, Romeo and Warren all agreed that a key to getting more women in office starts with empowering more women to run, something Rochester has an innate leg-up at doing because of its historical role models.
“We’ve been very fortunate in our region, we’ve seen a lot of women, well before just the past couple of years, step up, take these leads, stand up against the norms of their times and really fight for equality,” Romeo said. “We’ve seen that on a number of different fronts in the Rochester region. Seeing the women who have done that, whether they’ve failed or not, it gives you more, you are more likely to see the possibilities.”
As a woman of color in office, Warren sees a lot of work left to be done to create a truly equitable society. Her advice to the next generation of women is straightforward and concise.
“We can’t choose what family we’re born into, we can’t choose the color of our skin, we can’t chase the economic situation we’re born into, but what you can choose is what you do with your future,” Warren said. “If you put in the hard work, you can succeed, and there are disparities out there that you have to overcome, but you can’t give up hope.”