Lesson Module: Women and Congress

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Perspective: While recent attention has been paid to the growing number of women in the U.S. Congress, particularly in the Senate, women’s congressional representation remains low. Moreover, the most significant increases in women’s congressional representation have occurred in the past 25 years. Understanding Congressional history and current reality means recognizing the dearth of women in our nation’s legislature and the resulting impact on policy and process. In this module, we offer resources and ideas for integrating gender into lessons on Congress and/or creating a lesson solely focused on women and the U.S. Congress.

Goal: The goal of this module is to provide resources and ideas that will alter young people’s image of the U.S. Congress as a male/masculine space, while also highlighting the benefits of increasing women’s congressional representation. Students should be able to identify women’s underrepresentation as a problem for democracy, policy, and the political process, while also learning about female congressional leaders who may otherwise receive little attention in the curriculum. Doing so will help to normalize the image of Congresswomen so that the underrepresentation of women is even more apparent to student observers.

Content: To meet these goals, we provide information on the women who have served – and currently serve – in the U.S. Congress, the challenges women face as congressional candidates and officeholders, and the impact of women’s congressional leadership on politics and policy. We offer resources and activities that highlight women’s congressional achievements and experiences, and push young people to think about the institution of Congress with a gender lens.

 

Materials

CAWP Fact Sheets

Books and Articles

Video and Web Resources

Lean In Stories

Makers Videos

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Discussion Questions

Recommended for elementary-aged (K-5) students K-5

  1. What does a member of Congress do?
  2. Can men and women be members of Congress?
  3. Who in your life (family, friends, etc.) do you think could be a good member of Congress? Why?
  4. Do you think you could, or would want to be, a member of Congress? Why/why not?

Recommended for middle school-aged (6-8) students 6-8

  1. What do you think are the most important traits (e.g. friendly, smart) and skills (e.g. public speaking) for a member of Congress?
    1. Do you think that any of those traits or skills are more common among men or women? Explain.
    2. Are people born with these traits and skills, or do they learn them? Can a person develop the qualities necessary for a member of Congress?
  2. Why do you think women are only 19.6% of the members of Congress?
  3. Do you think it matters that women are only 19.6% of the members of Congress? Why/why not?
  4. What are the challenges facing someone who decides to run for congressional office? What – if any – challenges are different for men or women running for office?
  5. Who in your life (family, friends, etc.) do you think could be a good member of Congress? Why? (Probe on gender if responses are skewed by gender of potential president.)
  6. Would you ever consider running for Congress? Why or why not?

Recommended for high school-aged (9-12) students 9-12

  1. What do you think are the most important traits (e.g. friendly, smart) and skills (e.g. public speaking) for a member of Congress?
    1. Do you think that any of those traits or skills are more common among men or women? Explain.
    2. Are people born with these traits and skills, or do they learn them? Can a person develop the qualities necessary for a member of Congress?
  2. The first woman to serve in Congress was elected in 1916. Since then, 318 more women have served in the U.S. House or Senate. Still, in 2017, women represent only 19.6% of members of Congress. What do you view as the barriers women have faced to running for and winning congressional office?
    1. Do those barriers differ for women of different parties, races, ages, backgrounds, or regions/states?
    2. Can they be overcome or eliminated? How?
  3. Do you think it matters that women are only 19.6% of the members of Congress? Why/why not?
    1. How do policy discussions and/or agendas change with greater diversity among members?
    2. Do women bring any unique styles of leadership or collaboration to legislating? Explain.
  4. As a child, did you ever see yourself running for Congress or in any other political leadership position? Do you see that as a possibility now? Why/why not? (Look for gender differences among responses.)

Recommended for college students College

  1. When asked to picture a U.S. Senator or Representative, what image(s) immediately come to mind? Describe that/those image(s). (Probe on race/ethnicity and gender in particular.)
    1. From where do you think these images come?
  2. What do you think are the essential character traits and/or skills of a successful member of Congress? Why?
    1. Do you believe any of these traits or skills are more common to men or women? Explain.
    2.  Are people born with these traits and skills, or do they learn them? Can a person develop the qualities necessary for a member of Congress?
  3. The first woman to serve in Congress was elected in 1916. Since then, 318 more women have served in the U.S. House or Senate. Still, in 2017, women represent only 19.6% of members of Congress. What do you view as the barriers women have faced to both running for and winning congressional office?
    1. Do those barriers differ for women of different parties, races, ages, backgrounds, or regions/states?
    2. Can they be overcome or eliminated? How?
  4. The United States lags behind many other countries in the level of women’s representation in federal office. Why do you think other countries fare better in electing women to political office?
  5. Do you think it matters that women are only 19.6% of the members of Congress? Why/why not?
    1. How do policy discussions and/or agendas change with greater diversity among members?
    2. Do women bring any unique styles of leadership or collaboration to legislating? Explain.
  6. As a child, did you ever see yourself running for Congress or in any other political leadership position? Do you see that as a possibility now? Why/why not? (Look for gender differences among responses.)
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Activities

From other sources:

Profile a Congresswoman K-5
Read students a short biography of a prominent female member of Congress (see book list above). Engage in a discussion about her experience and whether or not being a woman made a difference in her path to office, her experience in office, or the impact she made once there.

Profile a Congresswoman – First Person Narrative 6-8 9-12
Ask students to view a Makers video interview or read a Lean In story by current and former members of Congress (see links above). Pose questions about the female member’s personal and professional story, including questions about whether or not being a woman made a difference in her path to office, her experience in office, or the impact she made once there.

What does a member of Congress look like? K-5 6-8
Provide students with materials and ask them to draw an image of what they perceive as an ideal Senator or Representative. In addition to the image of the officeholder him/herself, the students can include descriptive terms and traits about them (e.g. personality, experience/credentials, demographics). Once complete, the images should be shared and following questions posed to students as a group:

  • How are these images the same and how are they different?
  • Choose a trait and explain why you view that as important in an ideal officeholder.
  • How many of you drew a woman? Why? Did you hesitate?

 A Seat at the Table  6-8 9-12 College
Split your class into small groups by gender (all male, all female) and pose a discussion question. After 5-10 minutes, mix the groups so that men and women are equally represented in each. Give the new groups 5-10 minutes to discuss the same topic. Then, pose these questions to the entire class about the experience:

  • Were there any differences in the issues and perspectives raised in your groups when your groups were single-gender versus mixed-gender? If so, what were they? What do you think explains these differences?
  • Were there any differences in the overall dynamics of your group discussion – or how it was run – when your groups were single-gender versus mixed-gender? If so, what were they? What do you think explains these differences?
  • Did this activity demonstrate anything to you about the influence of diversity in group discussions, debate, and deliberation? How might these lessons apply to diversity in Congress?

The Difference Women Make 6-8 9-12 College
Show students one – or many – of the following video clips and pose the following questions:

  1. What does this clip demonstrate about the role of women in office?
  2. In what way(s) did the woman in this clip influence public policy? Do you think that a male member of Congress would have raised the same issue? In the same way?

Clips:

  • Senator Stabenow speaking on the importance of maternity care in a congressional committee hearing.
  • Representative Slaughter speaking about gender issues at the White House Health Care Summit.
  • Representative Gwen Moore speaking about the Violence Against Women Act
  • Senators Collins, Murkowski, and Ayotte on the Today show discussing the bipartisan budget deal in 2013
  • Bella Abzug on sexual equality (audio)
  • Bella Abzug on changing credit laws for women (video)

Women and Congress Crossword Puzzle 6-8 9-12
Have students complete a crossword puzzle that includes clues and answers related to women’s congressional history. Discuss the answers with students.

Congressional Facts Trivia 6-8 9-12 College
Either via paper or as a group, pose a set of trivia questions to your students about congressional milestones and measures of women’s progress. In addition to providing them the correct answers (where available), use these questions to spur discussion about women and Congress. Discussion ideas are included in parentheses.

Document-Based Questions 6-8 9-12 College

 

Jeannette Rankin’s WWI Vote
In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress to declare war on Germany. Rankin, the only woman in Congress at the time, was one of 57 members to vote against the declaration of war. In December of 1941, she became the only member of Congress to vote against both World Wars. Read the following coverage of Rankin’s 1917 vote and answer the questions below.

Source: Luckowski and Lopach, “A Chronology and Primary Sources for Teaching about Jeannette Rankin,” University of Montana)

A Washington, D.C., newspaper describes the vote (which was one of 57) as follows:
“Her appearance was of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She clutched at her throat repeatedly. Her hands were alternately wrapped around each other. She sat upright, then dropped forward in her seat. Occasionally she threw back her head and looked fixedly at the white lights shining through the stained glass ceiling of the house of representatives. She stroked her head tiredly. . . .Slowly Miss Rankin arose to her feet. . . .Every eye in the chamber was fixed upon her. There was no sound. As she came fully to a standing posture Miss Rankin threw back her head and looked straight ahead. Her hands groped for the back of the seat before her; they found it, and she gripped it hurriedly, nervously. ‘I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war,” she said. . . .A score of men called upon Miss Rankin to answer ‘aye’ or ‘no,’ not understanding that she intended to vote ‘no’ without actually using the word.” (Washington Times, 8 April 1917, JRP, MHS.)

Jeannette Rankin describes her vote:
“[The] hardest part of the vote was the fact that the suffragists were divided, and many of my beloved friends said that you will ruin the suffrage movement if you vote against war.” (Jeannette Rankin, interview by John C. Board, 29 August 1963, audio recording UML.) “[T]he pressure might have pushed me in if I hadn’t realized that the first woman has to take the first stand.’” (Jeannette Rankin, quoted in John C. Board, “The Lady from Montana: Jeannette Rankin,” M.A. thesis, University of Montana, 1964, 111)

Many react to her vote:
“[I]t would have been so much better and easier for you if two or more women had been the inaugurating element of our sex. . . .[R]esponsibility would have been divided and you would not have stood for womanhood, but only for Miss Rankin.” [Anna Garlin Spencer, Pennsylvania, to Jeannette Rankin, 12 May 1917, JRP, MHS.) “It is a common conviction that Representative Rankin missed, for herself and for the cause with which her name is closely identified, a golden opportunity when, the other day, she had her vote recorded in opposition to the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people of her country; but while this act cannot be recalled, Miss Rankin will not be denied other opportunities perhaps equally golden. . . . [I]t seems reasonable to believe that, when the roll shall be called upon them, Miss Rankin’s voice will ring out clear and firm on the right side.” (Christian Science Monitor, 11 April 1917, JRP, MHS.)

Questions:

  1. Do you think the coverage of Congresswoman Rankin’s vote differed at all from the way a man’s vote might have been covered due to her gender?
  2. What pressures did Congresswoman Rankin face as the only woman in Congress and, thus, the only woman with the ability to cast a vote for or against the start to World War I?
  3. Did Congresswoman Rankin’s vote against declaring war against Germany have any lasting effects on public perceptions of women as officeholders? In other words, did her decision affect women who would hold office after her? If so, how/in what ways?

 

Women’s Health
In 1985, the U.S. Public Health Service Task Force on Women’s Health Issues concluded that lack of representation of women in research conducted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) compromised the quality of the health care they receive. The Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues (CCWI), a bipartisan organization of female members of Congress, made integrating women into clinical trials a priority on their legislative agenda. As a result of their efforts, Congress passed legislation to require that women be included in science and health-related research funded by the federal government. Read the following brief history and answer the questions below.

Source: Society for Women’s Health Research, “Background on Clinical Trials Legislation”; See also clip of  Representative Louise Slaughter discussing women’s health and NIH clinical trials

Questions:

  1. Why do you think women were not included in NIH research prior to 1993? To what or whom would you attribute this change in policy?
  2. What does this case study demonstrate about the potential importance of having women in elected office? Or about the potential importance of having women researchers at government agencies like NIH or FDA?
  3. In what other policy areas – other than health and science – do you think women’s perspectives might be important to achieving the best possible outcomes for all citizens?

 

Women Take a Stand in Clarence Thomas Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. During his confirmation hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas’ former aide, Anita Hill, testified about being sexually harassed by Thomas. Her testimony and the all-male, all-white committee members’ treatment of her dominated the news and raised many public debates about race, gender, and political power. In particular, many credit Hill’s testimony with raising awareness about the underrepresentation of women in Congress and energizing women to consider running and supporting women candidates in the 1992 elections.
Source: Julia Malone, “Women Show their Clout in Thomas Case,” The Tuscaloosa News, October 9, 1991; See also clips from Anita Hill hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee

Questions:

  1. Why did women respond so strongly to seeing and hearing Anita Hill’s testimony and treatment of her by the Senate Judiciary Committee?
  2. What does the article say about the role of female members of Congress in addressing Hill’s treatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee? Does it appear that they had any impact? If so, how?
  3. What are the potential dangers of having any congressional committee made up of only white men? What are the potential advantages of greater diversity (gender, race, etc.) in any deliberative body like a committee or legislature?
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