The women in white and the trails they blaze

The women in white and the trails they blaze
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“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last,” said Jeannette Rankin when she was elected in 1916 — more than four years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. I’m sure she never could have imagined that, in 2019, 365 women would follow in her steps to serve in Congress.

I often wonder what gave Rankin, and others who chip away at the glass ceiling, the inspiration to make history. When you are the first, there’s no blazed trail to follow.


Rankin’s tenure in Congress was not easy. She was something of a curiosity and people wanted to know everything about her — “her marital status, affinity for moving pictures, hair color, conduct, and dress.” And could she do the job?

Inside the Capitol, it was difficult to promote women’s issues. Rankin had no seniority, no other women to help educate her colleagues about these issues and no voting bloc to support her. Her successors were frustrated and sidelined. Nevertheless, she and others persevered — and over the past century, women have made steady progress overcoming societal norms and obstacles. We’ve seen icons such as Patsy Mink and Shirley Chisholm and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the first women of color elected to Congress.

Women rose to leadership positions, and Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Senate investigation of insurrection falls short Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking MORE (D-Calif.) broke the “marble ceiling” when she was elected the first woman speaker of the House. This year, we elected more women to the 116th Congress than any other time in history — and the most diverse.

I think about girls who may have watched the State of the Union and saw the swath of suffrage white the women members of Congress wore in solidarity with those who came before them. They saw the youngest woman elected to Congress and one of the oldest. They saw women of almost every background that our melting pot has to offer. Girls and young women might see themselves in the women of the 116th Congress. And, just as important, boys and young men see women with political status, bringing us closer to the normalization of women in power.

Studies show that role models are important, especially for girls. A 2017 study published in the journal Science showed that girls as young as 6 believe men are smarter and more talented than women. These stereotypes make girls less likely to choose more challenging activities or more ambitious careers. Although the study did not address the causes, a 2015 study found that female role models not only show what’s possible but also help break down stereotypes that may threaten women’s career choices and performance.

We also know that women legislate differently. Women members of Congress sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills and have stronger collaboration networks than men. The legislation women sponsor also is more likely to benefit women and children.

The road to women’s representation in Congress has shown steady, but slow, progress. Even today, with an amazing number of women serving, we are not even close to parity. Women are 51 percent of the population, yet make up slightly less than a quarter of the 535 members of Congress. We still have a long way to go.

But we can change that. We can show those girls looking for role models all the women who came before them, those who did what today’s girls want to do.

I’m fortunate to be related to Susan B. Anthony. Growing up, family stories showed me that perseverance can pay off. As I worked my way through a male-dominated business world, I often would think of her and the price she paid leading the woman suffrage movement and her determination to never give up.

We need to tell stories such as Anthony’s, Rankin’s, Mink’s, Chisholm’s and all the other women who blazed the trails we are following. The women in white who fought for our right to vote. Those who broke our social and cultural barriers to give us and our daughters opportunities they could not have dreamed about.  

We need a place where women’s stories are told, and their voices heard. The National Women’s History Museum envisions a forward-thinking, vibrant center that creates a community where people contribute and discover women’s stories. It would be a place where we can put contemporary discussions into historical context, one that reaches well beyond its walls not only with its programs but also with its societal impact today and in the future.

Susan D. Whiting is board chair for the National Women’s History Museum, a trustee for the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, The Trust for Public Land, and Denison University. She is the former vice chair of Nielsen and a board director for Alliant Energy, Kemper Insurance, and Hyde Park Angels. A cousin of Susan B. Anthony, she is passionate about education and history.