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Gabriela Sundquist of Cheyenne contemplates candidates at the VFW Post 1881 polling station while voting on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Cheyenne. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/file

On Sept. 6, 1870, women in Cheyenne marched into polling places across the city, ready and willing to participate in an election for the first time. According to the Cheyenne Daily Leader, out of 776 total votes, 171 were cast by women.

Today, the makeup of American elections looks very different. More women participate in elections than men, and Congress has more female members than ever before.

The data shows women are showing up to the ballot box to make their voices heard.

"The dynamic has really changed," said Dave Marcum, political science instructor at Laramie County Community College. "If you look at the family dynamic or the dynamic of our economic system, you're seeing greater and greater female participation."

That rise in participation is also evident when it comes to voting.

The proportion of eligible women who voted has been higher than the proportion of eligible men who voted in presidential elections since 1980, according to a September study from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The difference in participation has been growing slowly since 1980, when the percentages were neck and neck. At that time, 61.9% of eligible women cast their votes, while 61.5% of men did. That 0.4 percentage point gap increased to a 4 percentage point difference by 2016, when 63.3% of eligible women voted compared to 59.3% of men.

Though the direct correlation is unclear, Marcum pointed out that the time period when participation rates diverged also coincided with the 1972 passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was intertwined with women's liberation.

"That was basically the height of the women's rights movement," Marcum said.

With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, a flame was lit once again for the Equal Rights Amendment, which states, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Enough support was secured that the Senate and the House passed the bill in 1972. The battle to get the bill ratified stretched into the early '80s, but fell short in meeting the 38-state requirement for ratification.

During the women's liberation movement, women participated in democracy by doing more than just voting. According to the National Organization for Women, gender equality advocates picketed the Miss America pageant, protested gender-specific help-wanted ads in the New York Times, and organized nationwide demonstrations and rallies.

Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said that type of civic engagement increases participation because it catches people's attention and makes them think.

"Movements like that play a huge role in mobilizing voters," Lee said.

Groups like NOW and the League of Women Voters were quite popular during that time period and encouraged members to stay politically active.

Around the time of the movement, the number of women in the Wyoming Legislature was also seeing changes.

In 1973, four women total served in the Senate and the House, according to the Wyoming State Archives' blue book. Twelve years later, in 1985, that number jumped to 22 – more than five times the amount in 1973.

The number of women in the Legislature now sits at 10, which Lee said has more to do with redistricting than lack of participation.

Today, there are many factors that drive women to vote.

LCCC's Marcum said certain topics that affect women personally, such as abortion, may inspire female participation.

"You're seeing issues like that gaining prominence and being discussed at the national level, and I think you could look at that as maybe another explanation as why women are more energized to not only vote, but run for office," Marcum said.

More women ran for office in 2018 than ever before. Marcum said candidates who support either side of important issues may also energize voters because they care about the issue itself.

"A lot of what motivates people to go to the polls and vote is the personal connection they have to the issues that are being discussed," he said.

From Lee's experience as a county clerk, she said more women will also turn out for elections for judges and district attorneys if there has been a series of rulings they disagree with.

While issues can draw voters out to the polls, another factor that Marcum pointed to is the broader change in culture and family dynamics in the United States.

"More and more women are working and becoming the primary earners in a family," Marcum said.

An analysis from Pew Research Center in 2013 showed that the number of mothers who are the sole providers for their families jumped from 10.8% in 1960 to 40.4% in 2011. The percentage of breadwinning single mothers was also on the rise.

One theory is that as primary caregivers, women interact with people tightly tied to the government, such as teachers and health-care workers. Marcum said that kind of experience, like taking care of an elderly parent and dealing with high medication costs, can affect someone's participation and vote.

While women still vote more than men, total voter participation is also looking up.

A total of 53% of the voting population participated in 2018's midterm election, which is the highest voter turnout in four decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For both men and women, participation increased by more than 10 percentage points compared to 2014.

Although the total number of voters is on the rise, participation still varies greatly across age demographics. The only age group where men vote at higher rates than women is ages 65 and older.

As a whole, 70.7% of those 65 and older voted, while only 43% of people ages 18-24 did. Women between the ages of 18 and 24 turned out at higher rates than men, but their participation was still the lowest of any age. Lee said younger people have a different outlook on the democratic process.

"Those of us who have been around for a while, we see the difference our vote makes," Lee said.

When Ronald Reagan was in office, he lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Lee said the shift made voting a coming-of-age act like getting your driver's license.

"It became a right of passage to vote," Lee said. "I think that's just what we were taught when we were younger."

Voting is still the easiest way to participate in democracy and make your voice heard. If you need to register, you can find the form on the Secretary of State's website. In Wyoming, you can fill out the form in person, mail it in or register at your polling place on Election Day.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretMAustin.

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