Constitution Day lecture: “The Unfinished Business of the 19th Amendment”

Maddie Margioni, Staff Writer

On Monday, Sept. 21, the University’s political science and legal studies departments co-hosted a Zoom webinar in honor of Constitution Day. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania Dawn Teele presented a talk entitled “The Unfinished Business of the 19th Amendment,” which coincided with the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Teele specializes in female representation in American politics, as well as voting reform. She began by discussing the history behind the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which declared it unconstitutional to disenfranchise voters “on the basis of sex.” The United States was a part of the “First Wave” in enfranchising women in 1920, and globally the most common time period for female suffrage was the 1950s-60s, coinciding with the spread of international democratization after World War II.

Teele also explained how the U.S. federal system determined where women were and were not enfranchised. For example, she described how prior to 1920, women actually were able to vote in many Western states, as expansion there meant that there was higher competition and the kind of “entrepreneurial thinking” which led to enfranchising new voters, as Teele said.

Teele then moved onto discussing the legacy of the 19th Amendment, and how female voting patterns and political representation have differed in the United States versus other countries. Female voter participation took longer to get off the ground in the United States than other countries, and fewer than 50% of women voted in the elections directly following the 1920 ratification. Today, while women are the largest group of voters in the electorate as a whole, the U.S. remains only 75th globally for female representation in government.

As for why this is the case, Teele remarked that “the institutions in the United States prevent more equal representation of women.” The two main issues she highlighted were the winner-take-all electoral system in place and the lack of electoral quotas in the U.S. The winner-take-all system means that only the people with the majority of the votes enter government and that only two parties exist in the U.S. Teele advocated for “total restructuring” of the electoral system, and suggested proportional representation, which is more the norm in Europe, and which would allow for a multi-party system. She also mentioned that electoral quotas on women and minorities in government would allow more equal representation.

Teele ended her talk by saying that the 19th Amendment “is really just the beginning of the story.” Her three recommendations for increasing equal representation of women included changing representational rules to allow for more ideological and geographic diversity, as well as decreasing polarization; working to secure voting rights for all through longer polling hours, more polls in urban areas, and easier voting by mail; and finally implementing policies to allow women to flourish in the home and the economy.

Teele urged attendees “to use the [COVID-19] disaster to work towards the change that constitutes the change that the suffragettes had in mind.” 

Associate Political Science Professor Christina Xydias said that she “was especially grateful for insights into how the effects of constitutional amendments play out in their institutional and social contexts. It is so important to emphasize that the 19th amendment ended restrictions on voting on the basis of sex – but not on the basis of race-ethnicity, for example.”

Teele has a book out on female enfranchisement entitled “Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Votes.”

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