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Women in the U.S. Senate. 17 Strong…and Hopefully Growing

Many bloggers (including myself) often lament the dismal number of women in corporate executive leadership positions. And while those figures are low, have you ever noticed how few women represent us in the United States senate? Here are few shocking facts:

  • Since the establishment of the US Senate in 1789, there have been only 39 female Senators.
  • The Senate was all male until 1922, when the first woman Senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, served for one day. She was appointed by Georgia Governor Thomas W. Hardwick to replace Senator Thomas E. Watson, who had died. The appointment was politically motivated. Hardwick was seeking the Senate seat in the next election and wanted to fill the vacancy with someone who would not be a competitor in the upcoming election. His ploy ultimately failed, and Walter F. George won the election. Because Congress was not in session when Felton was appointed in October, her official appointment came on November 21, 1922, with the swearing in of the newly elected Senator Walter F. George taking place November 22, 1922, making Felton’s tenure the shortest for any Senator in US history.
  • It wasn’t until 1932 that a female graced the senate floor again, when Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate.
  • The first women’s bathroom located outside the Senate Chamber (where the men’s bathroom was conveniently located) wasn’t established until 1993. Before that, female Senators, at the risk of missing a vote, had to run downstairs to share a public restroom with tourists.
  • Currently, only 17 of the 100 US Senators are women.

With 51% of the US population being female, it is striking that women have such limited political representation. Granted, from the founding of this country to early 1900, women were indeed held back from seeking a Senate spot—they couldn’t even vote much less run for an elected position. But with the passing of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, that barrier was removed. So what’s holding women back from seeking political leadership positions today?

Some say it’s the public’s lingering perceptions of gender roles, while others claim it’s sex discrimination. Or it may have more to do with women not wanting to place their life under a microscope, as is commonly done to politicians, or the very real challenge of raising enough money to run for office.

For one politically astute and well informed woman I met last week, it is the fear of public speaking that’s keeping her from her political ambitions. Running for higher office and representing voters requires not only having great command of the issues, but also an easy comfort level speaking in front of all kinds of groups. Whether it’s a town hall presentation, a media interview or a larger main stage speech, public speaking plays a significant role in politics.

Fortunately, public speaking skills are much easier to fix than any of the other potential roadblocks mentioned. By reading some books on the topic, taking courses, and even working with a good speech coach, anyone can strengthen their presentation skills and eliminate their fear of public speaking. So if you’ve ever had the urge to toss your hat into the ring but stopped short because you were uncomfortable speaking in front of a group, there is help. It’s time for women to stand up and be heard—in politics, in corporations, and everywhere in between.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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September 28th, 2011 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

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