This week, Kuwait’s parliament voted 35-23 to allow women to vote (though with some strings attached.) About time, you might say, and it certainly is. But before we excoriate the all-male parliament for taking so damn long (however much they deserve it), perhaps it would behoove us to take a look at how well the good ol’ U.S. of A. has done with its head start.
Meet Mrs. Rebecca Latimer Felton, the woman who got us rolling. I put her picture here because you probably haven’t heard of her. Though she was the first woman to occupy a seat in the United States Senate, she also holds the record for the shortest term (24 hours: 21-22 Nov 1922.) As it happens, she also holds the title of oldest Senator at the time of first swearing-in (age eighty-seven, and when you’re born in 1835 I think just that is an achievement.)
Following Felton’s appointment, there was a bit of a lull. The 24 hours of excitement was enough to tide the electorate over for nearly a decade, until Hattie Wyatt Caraway won a seat in 1932. Hattie (love the name) had actually first occupied the seat in 1931, when she was appointed to replace her fellow excellently-named husband, Thaddeus Horatius Caraway. (Replacing husbands was something of a trend, as to this day nearly half of all female Senators have served less than a full term, most just a year.)
Fast forward to today. In a time when the population of the nation at large is 51% female, the Senate is 86% male. In the 83 years since Mrs. Felton, there have been 33 women who’ve held Senatorial office.
That number seems low to me, and I’m not the only one:
Based on percentage of women in the upper and lower house, [t]he Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked the United States 59th out of 121 countries in the world for representation of women. Countries ahead of the United States include Rwanda, Cuba, South Africa, Vietnam, Pakistan, China and Bosnia. (Center for Voting and Democracy)
I don’t have some magic number or quota in mind, but I do think that it’s not too much to ask that a representative democracy vaguely reflect its public (and don’t get me started on the millionaires in Congress…) Or, put another way: when it comes to women in politics, Kuwait took a long-overdue first step. I just wish we could say we’re a lot further down the road.