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U.S. truly became a democracy on Aug. 26, 1920

August 22, 2010


1920 was a big year for my grandma.  In March she gave birth to her first child, my dad.  In August, she won the basic democratic right to vote.

Women in a few Western states already had limited voting rights, but on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirmed the right of all American women to vote in all public elections.  We think of it as ridiculous now, but women had to raise hell for 72 years in order to win the right to vote.

American women and their male supporters worked relentlessly for seven decades to provide my grandma and me with the opportunity to participate in elections that, absurdly, were already thought of as democratic.

By presidential proclamation, Aug. 26 is celebrated as Women’s Equality Day annually in recognition of both the anniversary of women’s suffrage and of women’s continued efforts toward equal rights in the United States.

Suffrage is a funny, old-fashioned-sounding word.  In this context, it simply means the right to vote, but I think its inherent implication of suffering is pretty accurate, too, considering the 72 years women fought in the streets and went to jail to get the vote. Born over a period of about 100 years and spanning many rungs on the social ladder, some she-roes of women's suffrage deserve tribute today.

Alice Paul graduated from her grandpa’s college, Swarthmore (not that he went there — he founded it), with a degree in biology.  She studied at several universities, earning a master’s and a Ph.D. from Penn, and then earned three law degrees.  She had a radical notion that she had as much to contribute to conversations about elections as any man.

An African-American slave named Isabella was called by the Lord to preach the truth about slavery and women’s suffrage.  He gave her the idea to change her name to Sojourner Truth.

She spoke out more than 150 years ago, but her words can be recited by multitudes of women today.  She spoke to crowds in the street, telling them she spent her life working and plowing and planting and harvesting with the strongest of men and she had also borne 13 children — and the lash.  She had a radical notion that she had as much right to vote in elections as any man.

Carrie Chapman Catt was a newspaper editor and peace activist.

She worked for world peace and women’s rights.  The same year women got the right to vote, she founded the League of Women Voters, still a mighty force in American politics, and now also advocating for democracy around the world, insisting that women have as much to offer their countries as any man.

I love Abigail Adams for standing up for people less fortunate than herself, which included pretty much everyone because she was first lady of the United States.

Her husband, President John Adams, admired her for her intellect and frequently sought her opinion.  She famously admonished him to remember the ladies when he was considering laws for the United States.  Less famously, she pointed out to him that all men would be tyrants if they could.

Lucy Stone won my heart for not taking her husband’s name after marriage.  In 1855.  She worked tirelessly to provide herself with a college education and then used it the rest of her life to end slavery and fight for the rights of women.

I will observe Women’s Equality Day on Wednesday, the 90th anniversary of the day my grandma became eligible to vote, but I wonder how much longer it will be, in business, in politics, and in some religious organizations, for women to really be seen as equal.

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Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.

 

 

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