Women’s Equality Is at the Heart of Democracy

By Carrie N. Baker   |   May 20, 2024

How is it that over 60% of Americans support the legalization of abortion in most cases, but Roe v. Wade was overturned and 14 states have now banned abortion in most circumstances? A president whose vote count fell millions of votes short of that of his opponent appointed three Supreme Court justices, who joined the extreme right wing of the Court to overturn a half-century-old constitutional right supported by a majority of Americans. Then politicians in states with high levels of gerrymandering and voter suppression banned abortion, contrary to the wishes of the majority of voters in those states. In response, abortion rights supporters have turned to direct democracy. The seven abortion-related ballot measures since the Supreme Court reversed Roe in June 2022 have favored abortion rights, even in red states like Kansas and Ohio. 

“Women’s rights are at the core of any democracy,” says Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) and executive editor of Ms. magazine. “As authoritarians rise to power, a central platform is the attack on women’s rights and bodily autonomy. If half of the country’s population is subjected to discrimination and denied full and active participation in the civic life of a nation, you can’t have a true democracy. Fighting for women’s full equality is central to a functioning democracy.”

The five organizations featured in this chapter promote democracy by working to support women’s rights, as well as the equal representation and inclusion of women’s voices and perspectives in politics and media. These organizations address the interconnections between democracy and women’s rights from multiple angles – mobilizing young women to engage politically (FMF); advocating for gender equality in political representation (The Ascend Fund); supporting women and feminist perspectives in journalism to inform voters (the International Women’s Media Foundation and FMF’s Ms. magazine); supporting recognition of the already-ratified Equal Rights Amendment (ERA Coalition); and advocating for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people through litigation, policy, and culture change work (National Women’s Law Center). These organizations are fighting for women’s equality and increased representation in positions of leadership in society – in elective office, in journalism, in the economy, and more.

 As of February 2024, the U.S. lags behind 70 other countries across the world in women’s political representation in national legislatures, with American women holding only 29.2% of seats in the House of Representatives and 25% of seats in the Senate. There are 151 women in Congress, 64 of whom are women of color, compared to 381 men. Women’s representation is only marginally better in state legislatures, where women hold 32.9% of seats. Similarly, in the courts, in 2023, women made up only about one-third of federal judges and one-third of state judges.

Women in public office matter. Countries with more women in elected leadership are less likely to go to war; more likely to enact policies that reduce carbon dioxide emissions; and more likely to enact policies that support pregnant women, mothers, infants, and children. These differences mirror significant gender gaps in attitudes toward many public policy issues. For example, women are more likely than men to prefer that the government take an active role in providing a social safety net – including food assistance, health insurance, and welfare – for those in need. Women are also more likely than men to support regulations to protect the environment and laws that protect the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination. In contrast, women are less likely than men to support military interventions and gun rights.

Political scientist Jennifer M. Piscopo explains: “Ideas about appropriate gender roles mean that women and men have different lived experiences, which shape women’s awareness of problems and their preferences for solving them. For instance, women are more likely than men to perform caretaking roles – like raising children – and both historically and today they are more likely than men to want stronger healthcare, housing, education, childcare, and anti-poverty programs.”

The Ascend Fund recruits and trains women to run for political office in order to achieve diverse, gender-balanced representation in Congress and state legislatures across the country. FMF recruits and trains girls and young women to be feminist leaders, including by registering young people to vote in battleground states. Both these organizations work to create diverse political leaders who are more responsive to the concerns and needs of the communities they represent.

Just as male-dominated legislatures are less likely to support women’s rights, mainstream media disproportionately centers male experiences and perspectives, often excluding the lives and voices of women and girls. An analysis across the major U.S. media platforms revealed that in the first three months of 2021, men received 57% of news bylines and credits. Men also dominate media leadership. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in 2023, only about a fifth of 180 top editors across 240 major outlets in 12 global markets were women, despite the fact that women account for, on average, 40% of the journalists in those markets.

“The news media is one of the most important ways that perceptions about society are made, and if those perceptions are being led by a non-diverse news industry, then we are not going to be able to further the democratic process,” says the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz.

The IWMF promotes women in the media with awards, reporting opportunities, fellowships, grants, safety training, and emergency aid. By supporting and recognizing women in journalism, the IWMF strengthens the free press and democracy across the globe.

 “The public needs to be informed to be able to make good decisions,” says Muñoz. “If they’re not getting a true reflection of their communities in the media that they consume, then their ability to make informed decisions at the ballot box about their leaders is gone. They’re making decisions based on potentially false information – disinformation.”

FMF also supports women in media by publishing Ms. magazine, which offers in-depth analysis and reporting on the lives of women and girls around the world – coverage often missing from mainstream reporting. Ms. reports on the impact that cutting off abortion access has had not only on women’s health but also on the economy and on women’s ability to participate in politics and the economy. The magazine covers other women’s issues that are critical to a functioning democracy, including our care infrastructure, gender-based violence, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). 

“The research and reporting we do with Ms., in combination with the grassroots organizing that we do to ensure that young women voters have their voices heard, is critical to strengthening and furthering democracy,” says Spillar.

In addition to equal representation in politics and media, the organizations featured in this chapter champion women’s rights and equality. The bedrock of women’s equality is the ERA, which has been fully ratified but is still not recognized as the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ERA Coalition and FMF are fighting for publication of the ERA.

“In a democracy, we’re all supposed to be participating. For everyone to participate, we have to all be treated equally,” says Bettina Hager, the ERA Coalition’s chief of policy and programs.

 In addition to supporting the ERA, FMF is fighting for the expansion of women’s rights in a wide range of areas, including reproductive rights, wage equity, the right to be free from sexual harassment and gender-based violence, and paid leave and childcare support – all issues linked directly to democracy.

“How can women participate fully in the economy, which is critical to a strong democracy, if they are constantly juggling care of children, elderly parents, or sick members of their own families?” asks Spillar. “Without a publicly funded and accessible and affordable system of childcare, elder care, and disability care, how can the people who are most often responsible for this care participate?”

Women’s rights and representation are a barometer of democracy. The erosion of women’s rights is a canary in the coal mine of a dying democracy. Rising autocratic regimes across the world are targeting women’s rights, particularly regarding reproduction and bodily autonomy. To build a true democracy that ensures women’s rights and better care for all, the organizations featured in this chapter fight for inclusive political leadership and media that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and respect all of our rights.