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Mind the Leadership Gap: Lessons From Women's Suffrage

08/23/2013 09:01 am ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

August 26, 2013, marks the 93rd anniversary of the historic day on which women in the U.S. finally earned the right to vote. We should marvel at the struggle for voting rights that began in 1848, and didn't end until 1920. American women fought in ways that were unheard of in those days; they picketed at the White House, staged marches around the country, and sometimes even went to jail. The suffragists were true pioneers in empowerment.

During the First World War, women took the factory jobs that their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons had to leave behind, in addition to caring for their families. There was no great celebration of these mothers', wives', sisters', and daughters' heroism and sacrifice. In 1918, in the aftermath of the war, President Woodrow Wilson declared, "We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of right?" Wilson's words speak to a powerful truth in American society: That despite all of the work that women have and continue to shoulder, both in and outside of the home, they were not then and are still not today recognized as equals.

This is especially striking when it comes to political leadership. As part of our Women United For initiative, Women Donors Network (WDN) recently hosted its second women's pre-conference at Netroots Nation to explore how to address some of today's enduring inequalities, including increasing the number of women in political and civic leadership. This year, women hold only 18.3 percent of congressional (20 percent in the Senate and 17.9 percent in the House), while more than 50 percent of the population is women, and we made up 53 percent of the 2012 electorate. As history has clearly shown, it is simply not possible for women's interests to be properly represented if our elected representatives do not reflect the citizens they are elected to serve.

What's more, women are more likely to unite through common causes and concerns, regardless of their party affiliations. This is the kind of political system we should strive for: one that is collaborative and cooperative, instead of competitive and divisive. Ironically, the United States has encouraged many other countries to increase female representation by changing the structure of government - for example, by requiring that a certain number of seats be filled by women. If successful, these efforts to increase gender parity in politics will do much more than simply advance issues that are important to women. When women run for office, their visibility and ambition sends a powerful message that inspires and encourages other women to pursue leadership roles in politics, business and other areas of civic life.

Despite the progress women have made over the last two centuries, there is still much more to be done. Let's be inspired and galvanized by the passion of the suffragists to be the ones who determine our place in society as leaders. As Sojourner Truth famously said, "If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it?"

At Women Donors Network, we strive to honor the legacy of those who fought for women's suffrage by leveraging our talents and communities to support female leaders from all backgrounds, from the grassroots to the White House, who will relentlessly advocate for change.