One hundred years ago, on Aug. 26, 1920, our country ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. On that date, my maternal grandmother was 39 years old. By the time of the first election in which she was eligible to vote, she had turned 40. She spent nearly half of her life without a political voice.
Many women of my grandmother’s generation fought long and hard to secure women the right to vote. For over 70 years, they pleaded, petitioned and protested. Some worked behind the scenes, lobbying for a seat at the table that most men – and many women – didn’t think they deserved. Better to stay out of the harshness of civic life and concentrate on keeping the home, opponents argued successfully year after year. Others took to the streets, waging high-profile public relations campaigns that sought to shame leaders who would deny half of the nation’s citizens a role in their so-called “democracy.” Many of these women were beaten, arrested and sentenced to months in jail. Only the commitment, courage and willingness of countless women to labor and suffer for the cause kept the movement for woman suffrage going. It was not a peaceful parade in flowing white gowns and satin banners, as historical photos often show. It was a prolonged, exhausting fight.
Achieving the vote was monumental, but even the most ardent suffragists recognized that the right to vote simply opened the door to participation in political life. It didn’t change deep cultural attitudes about a woman’s place or expand basic freedoms in areas like education and employment. My mother was born in 1922, just two years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, and her opportunities as a young woman remained limited by prevailing views about where women belonged and where they didn’t.
In my mother’s younger years, higher education for women was not typical and often expensive. As rural farmers, her parents could not afford the college she wanted to attend, so she joined the war effort instead, spending three years working in the laboratories of the Manhattan Project, the secret project to build the atomic bomb. After the war, she married and worked to support my father’s education, then turned to raising a family, as women of her era were expected to do. Earning her own degree would have seemed extravagant and unnecessary, given the clear domestic path before her.
Even when women excelled academically and were eminently qualified, few employers would hire them. Well into the 1950s, many Americans held to the belief that women should stay at home. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg finished at the top of their law school classes but couldn’t find jobs because they were women. It was nearly 45 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of sex. My mother had just turned 42. She lived almost half her life without the protections of equal opportunity that my generation takes for granted.
By the time my sisters and I graduated high school in the 1970s, doors had opened and we didn’t hesitate to walk through them. We earned degrees and held professional jobs — meaningful positions that gave us personal satisfaction. In the 1990s, while celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, I asked my mom if she had any regrets about the course her life had taken. “Only one,” she said: “Not getting my education.” It must have been bittersweet to see each of her daughters earn college and professional degrees with few obstacles, knowing that she might have done so too, had the times and circumstances been different.
Today, it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize and appreciate the great gifts that both the suffragists and civil rights activists bestowed on women in our country. Today, we can look back in awe and gratitude at the warriors who never accepted their status as second-class citizens and demanded both the political power and the legal right to participate fully in American public life.
Yet knowledge of the long disenfranchisement of my grandmother’s generation still weighs heavily, because it reminds me not only of how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go to preserve for everyone the most fundamental right of citizenship — the right to vote. Efforts to thwart voting, especially in communities of color, remain strong in many parts of the country. Especially in the South, keeping Black people from the polls has a long and shameful history that continues to this day. In its latest effort to undermine elections, the current administration seeks to suppress the vote by paralyzing the U.S. Postal Service.
Knowledge of the discrimination my mother’s generation faced also rests uneasily in my conscience, since discrimination in its infinite variety and pettiness continues to plague many spheres of our society today. Despite deep and persistent disparities based on race, laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, too many Americans still jeer and ridicule movements like Black Lives Matter, which struggles peacefully to secure for Black Americans their full rights and protections as citizens. Too many still deride and dismiss the urgent calls for equality and impartial justice that ring out across our diverse and divided landscape. Too many still see democracy as a privileged game that not everyone should be entitled to play.
We’ve come so far to arrive here? Suffragists and civil rights leaders must have known the feeling well. Power doesn’t yield unless it has to; people who abuse their power to keep others down find comfortable space in every generation. But if suffragists could survive defeat after defeat, decade after decade, to secure a woman’s right to vote, and civil rights leaders could survive defeat after defeat, decade after decade, to secure the right of all Americans to live free of discrimination, certainly we can roll up our sleeves and continue the work they started.
To all who envision a future America that keeps a place at the table for everyone: thank you. To all who peacefully demand the change needed to bring such a vision to pass: thank you. And to all who work to protect the integrity of the vote, the backbone on which all change ultimately rests: Thank you. On Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day, I will raise a toast to all of you, and to all the kindred spirits who battled before you to win the freedoms we must perennially work to protect. And on Nov. 3, I will vote, as I’ve been able to do my entire adult life, because a century ago women across America understood the importance of my voice. Never has the gift of my forbears felt so valuable, or the duty to honor their efforts felt so strong.
Barbara Hood moved to Alaska from Texas a half century ago, and has worked for human rights and social justice for 40 years.
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