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Gender Equality in Politics

Many children believe equality has been achieved, and that's a problem.

 Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash
Mary Church Terrell, a suffragist most children do not know about
Source: Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The ensuing hundred years saw women fight for gender equality in political representation. What do children know of this battle for equality?

Children today know very little about the history of women’s rights in the U.S. The suffrage movement was a long, protracted battle, in which women were beaten and jailed while protesting for their political rights. But, as part of a study of nearly 200 5- to 11-year-old children in five U.S. states, when we asked elementary-school-aged children to name an individual who worked for women's right to vote or women's political equality, only 12 of 187 of kids could name even a single public figure who engaged in women’s rights activism as a primary pursuit (Patterson et al., 2019). And only a single child named a suffragette: a 7-year-old who named Susan B. Anthony. The other 11 children named Hilary Clinton. The sad truth is that most elementary-school-age children don’t know about the history of women’s fight for political equality in the U.S. and that has repercussions for their views of current U.S. politics.

In addition to knowing very little about women’s rights, children think the battle has been won. A striking 35% of elementary-school-aged children reported that a woman had already served as U.S. president. And a majority of the children thought that half or more of U.S. senators, representatives, and governors are female. In other words, many children thought politics was characterized by gender equality.

Some people argue that it’s a good thing that children are ignorant of the gender disparities in politics today. These people believe that if girls knew the truth, they would be discouraged from pursuing a career in politics.

The truth is that kids can handle learning the truth.

Further, children will eventually realize that women have not come close to achieving equality in politics. Even after the 2018 success of the Year of the Woman, only 24% of members of the U.S. Congress and 18% of U.S. state governors are women. And a woman has yet to be elected president or vice president of the United States.

When children learn the history of the women’s rights movement and the stories of powerful female leaders, they both come to understand the gender discrimination of the past and develop narratives to help counter the stereotypes that women are too weak and meek to thrive in politics. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, talk to kids in your own life about the women’s rights movement. During those discussions, talk about the important role that BIPOC women—like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell—played, while also talking about the racism that was a part of the movement. And advocate for the history to be taught in your local schools. Children need to understand the realities of historical and current gender discrimination to understand gender discrepancies in politics.

References

Patterson, M. M., Bigler, R. S., Pahlke, E., Brown, C. S., Hayes, A. R., Nelson, A., & Ramirez, C. (2019). Toward a developmental science of politics. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 84(3). doi:10.1111/mono.12410

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