It’s been quite a week for us ladies.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin got the ball rolling with his inane, medically disputed comment that it’s hard for females to get pregnant if raped: “If it’s a legitimate rape,” said the Missouri U.S. Senate candidate, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The political ideology behind those words put women’s health and concerns in the hurricane’s eye of another round of campaign banter – predictably with women on the sidelines of the discussion and with our needs a side issue to the politics.
Then the Augusta National Golf Club slipped in a curve ball with its unexpected announcement that it was now admitting women. Not one, mind you, but two were among the firsts in its 80 year history.
And one of them, S.C. businesswoman Darla Moore (the other was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), was reportedly recommended for membership by former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson. Yes, that Hootie Johnson – the one who figuratively blocked the clubhouse door in 2002 with a vow to admit women on his own timetable and not “at the point of a bayonet.”
Weapons have been laid down, and women are now in.
The whirlwind week puts in stark relief the upcoming commemoration of Women’s Equality Day. Ninety-two years ago come Sunday, the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law, and women finally got the right to vote. The events this week highlight how things have changed (and what hasn’t) for women since the suffrage movement – and how painfully slow some changes have been.
Yet the current media attention also underlines the importance of women getting the right to vote, and the power women wield when they exercise it.
That was never truer than in the last presidential election. Analyses of who voted in 2008 give the edge to women: 65.7 percent of women voted compared to 61.5 percent of men. So it’s not surprising that this year’s presidential candidates are focusing attention on the female vote.
The power of women’s votes was brought home to me a few weeks ago while I was in Dayton, Ohio. I was discussing the upcoming election with James Gee, a 29-year-old political consultant who’s in law school. Gee was field director for hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Sean Combs’ Vote or Die project in 2004, the youth-oriented voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive that helped push more young people to vote.
With polls showing young people disillusioned since 2008 and predictions that many will stay at home on Election Day and not turn out in the numbers that helped elect Barack Obama, I was interested in how Gee thought things would play out with the youth vote. To my surprise, he said that wasn’t the issue to focus on – women were, especially older women. Looking me in the eye, he said, “You are the most reliable voters.”
I would like to think that some of that reliability has a bit to do with the struggle it took for women to get the vote. But honestly, I’m pretty sure a lot of females and males are ignorant of that history.
Yes, a lot of folks know the names of women’s rights legends like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth. But many people probably don’t realize that the suffrage fight was under way in the 1770s when women did have the right to vote in some states.
By 1784, women had lost the right to vote in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And with the Constitutional Convention in 1787 putting voting rights in the hands of states, women in all states except for New Jersey lost the right to vote. New Jersey became the last to revoke voting rights in 1807.
Regaining women’s voting rights in 1920 was a long and arduous journey that in the end depended on one 24-year-old Tennessee lawmaker.
The women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878. In the years after, several states began restoring or establishing women’s voting rights.
But it took until 1918 for the U.S. House to pass the amendment and 1919 for the U.S. Senate to follow suit. Then, as law required, the amendment needed ratification of three-quarters of the states.
North Carolina had an opportunity to be the deciding state. It was the next state to consider the amendment after 35 other states had ratified it. But on August 17, 1920, the N.C. legislature defeated the measure by two votes. The North Carolina General Assembly would not ratify the amendment until 1971, the same year U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug, a vocal feminist, got Congress to designate Women’s Equality Day.
So in August of 1920, the state standing between women and their voting rights was Tennessee. And the man holding the crucial vote was young Harry Burn.
Burn had previously voted with the anti-suffrage forces. But this time his mother wrote him a letter imploring him to “vote for suffrage.” When he saw that the vote was very close, and with his anti-suffrage vote would be tied 48 to 48, he decided to switch and vote as his mother had urged him. So on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and deciding state to ratify. And eight days later, the 19th amendment became law.
Today, statistics show women have made great strides in being treated equally and fairly. Gov. Bev Perdue, who is declaring Saturday Women’s Equality Day in North Carolina, takes note of that in a new Institute for Women’s Policy Research study on N.C. women. The progress of women here and nationwide is due in no small part to women’s ability to vote for people who include their concerns in decision-making and whose policies address women’s needs.
But statistics also show challenges remain. And with men still predominating as political leaders and policymakers, the ballot remains a key tool that women must wield on their behalf.
Women being dubbed reliable voters is a great testament to the hard work of the suffragettes, their allies and all who came after them to fight for women’s rights. A bigger tribute would be to vote this year in even larger numbers. Given all the women’s issues at stake, being a reliable voter is in every woman’s best interest.