“Today we look across the landscape of women’s activism and we see what we call intersectionality… fighting for a broad set of powerful and ongoing struggles. The activism you see then leading up to the 19th Amendment is in many respects the same activism we see today. The work that lies ahead of us is to continue to broaden to the deepest and most expansive and most inclusive frame possible that all women, regardless of where they are, what color they are, where they’re from, are not denied or abridged in their capacities to vote.”— Anthea Hartig, director of National Museum of American History
This month marks the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment. The suffragists understood that the ability to vote was a representation of whether or not a person mattered to a government that was supposed to act in everyone’s interests.
With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the question of who “matters” to the state has taken on a different meaning—particularly in a year when people of color and single mothers have been in the most precarious positions, as a result of COVID-19.
In election years, the U.S. public often reflects on voting and civic engagement—and this year in particular will test the strength of this democratic republic.
To mark the suffrage centennial, the Smithsonian Museum of National History put together a digital exhibit celebrating the Suffrage Movement called “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage” about the history of the suffrage movement and what has been left out of the history books.
This virtual exhibit includes tabs ranging from “Who Was Left Out of the Story?” that details how many who hoped the passage of the 19th Amendment would guarantee reform and equality across all social issues were disappointed.
Another called “Votes For All Women?” discusses how many queer women and women of color felt excluded or disregarded from the suffrage movement, and another called “100 Years, 100 Women” celebrates Jeannette Rankin (the first woman elected to Congress in 1916 before she even had the right to vote), along with other pioneer women politicians who have served in the U.S. government.
The tab “Senators on Suffrage” includes reflections on suffrage from women senators.
Many of them discussed the importance of acknowledging how far this country has come from 100 year ago.
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Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said:
“Our democracy wasn’t just built by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t finalized in the 18th century when the ink dried on the four original pages of the Constitution.
“It was shaped by women like Abigail Adams, who I named my first daughter after. It was strengthened by suffragists like Sojourner Truth, who worked to better the country that had kept her in chains, using her emancipation to call for freedom and a voice for all. It was formed by Illinoisans like Ida B. Wells, who demanded that women of color have a place at the forefront of the suffrage movement. It was forged by women like Mary Livermore, who channeled her frustration over women’s inequality into action, spearheading Chicago’s first-ever suffrage convention more than 150 years ago, thus marking Illinois as a leader in the fight for women’s rights.
“And our union was made more perfect in 1913, when thousands of suffragists marched through Washington, DC, risking safety and security, withstanding hypocrisy and overcoming misogyny, refusing to stay silent so that their daughters and their daughters’ daughters would inherit the democracy they deserved.”
Sen Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) emphasized how so many social justice movements have been spearheaded by women and particularly women of color, who have long been left out of the history of the passage of the 19th Amendment:
“Women have demanded better workplaces and communities, and the #MeToo movement has challenged longstanding sexism and sexual harassment. We’ve fought to end systemic racism and discrimination as Black Lives Matter protests swelled across the nation. And we’ve worked to end gun violence by advocating for stronger background checks and closing loopholes.
“I doubt much of this would be achieved if women—and the women of color whose own struggle to vote took much longer to win—didn’t have the right to vote.”
Echoing the thoughts of Senator Hirono, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote about the importance of thinking about this year not just as a year of celebrating the accomplishments of activists of the past, but of a call to action today:
“We cannot celebrate women’s suffrage without talking about how these early efforts excluded Black women and other women of color and without recognizing the ongoing fight to end discriminatory laws, policies, and practices that keep Black Americans and other people of color from participating in our democracy.
“Today an aggressive effort to suppress votes has resulted in hours-long lines, polling places running out of ballots, eligible voters whose names were purged from voter rolls, burdensome voter ID rules, and a host of other despicable practices. When everyone votes, democracy wins, and that’s why I fight to level the playing field, to end racist voter suppression, and to make voting easier.
“The centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment is an opportunity to reflect on the power of raising our voices, organizing, and persisting until we see big, structural change in our country.”
2020 has been rough on hope, and it’s felt challenging to find the silver lining in a year of a global pandemic that has exposed the wounds of a country still reeling from inequity and injustice. But what seems critical for our collective survival is our commitment to participate in the running of this country so we can make it a “more perfect union,” as so many senators said in their statements.
This year, we must choose to take inspiration from generations of women, from trans women to Indigenous women, from queer women to straight women, who have all fought for the right for all of us to vote. This year is not one to sit out.
As Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote:
“As we continue on in the fight toward progress, the words of Coretta Scott King ring true: ‘Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’
“Her sentiment is a reminder that as we acknowledge milestones, we must also take them as a call to action. And that the very nature of the fight for equality is that each generation’s contribution is not permanent. It is on all of us to be vigilant, but to also not be overwhelmed. There is never time to throw our hands in the air and give up. There is only time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. That is what the women before us did, and that is what we must continue to do.”