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The special problems faced by female politicians in the U.S. are similar to those faced by women in any professional field. Until recently, gender discrimination in the U.S. and around the world was so common that many people considered it the normal state of affairs. Even in modern times, women face special challenges in U.S. politics because of their gender. Until the 1990s, female politicians made up a tiny percentage of lawmakers in local or federal positions. The election of 2008 saw women vying for the presidency and vice-presidency but facing special problems their male counterparts did not encounter.
Until the 20th century, there were few female politicians at the local level and none at the national level. Women, in fact, were not allowed to vote in national elections until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920. Individual states had granted voting rights before that time, allowing the first female member of Congress, Jeanette Rankin, to be elected in 1917. A Republican, Rankin was an outspoken progressive and pacifist and the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War II. She served two non-consecutive terms; until the 1940s, most other women in Congress took seats previously held by their late husbands, a phenomenon called widow’s succession.
Widespread gender discrimination was a challenge to women in any profession throughout the 20th century, including female politicians, lawyers, and judges. Men in positions of power often could not accept women as equals or felt threatened by them. Some tried to argue that uniquely female conditions, such as pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause, would put women at a disadvantage in male-dominated fields. This sort of thinking, called sexism, was diminished by the educational and political work of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. It still exists, however, as many modern women can attest.
Until the 1990s, female politicians composed, at most, 2 percent of all members of Congress at any given time. The election of 1992 saw 28 women elected, and numbers have slowly increased ever since. This did not mean an end to the problems faced by female politicians, however. High-profile women in politics often faced sexist commentary and criticism that men in similar positions would not encounter. These women included Geraldine Ferraro, the first Democratic vice-presidential candidate; Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House; and Hillary Clinton, the first lady in the Clinton White House and later a New York state senator.
When Clinton sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, she was widely considered the first viable female candidate for president. Whether Clinton’s gender played a role in her eventual defeat remains a subject of debate. Criticism of Clinton in the popular media included many derogatory comments based on her gender. The same election saw the first Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. This provoked highly sexualized parodies of Palin on the Internet and elsewhere, confirming that female politicians still face special problems in the 21st century.
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