I get to do this, as a woman, thanks to the efforts of other women who never got to cast a ballot, some of whom are named in this timeline of the women’s suffrage movement. The 19th Amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919; Wisconsin was the first state to ratify it, on June 10 (thanks to which, the Wisconsin Historical Society maintains a collection of documents on women’s suffrage).
Today, I am thinking particularly of Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the National American Woman Suffrage Association to its ultimate political victory in 1919, with the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment, and who also founded the League of Women Voters to aid newly-enfranchised women in exercising their civic responsibilities wisely.
The mission statement of the League of Women Voters is full of noble language, like “empower citizens to shape better communities worldwide” and “citizenship requires knowledge, as well as the ability and will to act” and “the responsibility of good government rests on the shoulders of its citizens” — language I didn’t realize how much I agreed with until a few days ago, when I was driving somewhere (as usual) with my daughter, and we fell into a conversation about voting. Since it was coming up. And school. Which is forever coming up.
And I said “Every citizen of this country ought to be able to write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, that gives the good reasons for their opinion . . .” It’s our job, the citizens’ job, to make sure our elected officials do their jobs, I said, to my daughter. We are supposed to be informed and involved, I said, to my daughter. This is why we send you to school, I said, to my daughter. So you can be free.
Well, I said it to my daughter, but probably just as much to myself. I don’t like to think I’m naive, so naive as to believe that voting will change everything. I’m inclined, at least sometimes, to agree with the graffiti, reportedly found in a bookstore restroom, that goes “if voting changed anything, it would be illegal.” (As proof, we might note that in places where it actually might, it is.) Apparently, a lot of women — according to the organization Women’s Voices, Women Vote, especially unmarried women — stay away from the polls for all the reasons people stay away from the polls — in the end, presumably, boiling down to the calculation that it is not worth doing whatever will have to be done to make the giant electoral machine take their one vote into account.
On the other hand, on election days, like this one, I cannot help remembering the Suffragists, and how a person like me — a woman person — would not have been able to go to the old fire station and fill out a ballot 100 years ago, without being taken to jail. I am compelled to remember, as well, that a person like Fannie Lou Hamer — a black woman person — couldn’t go to City Hall even 40 years ago to register to vote without being taken to jail, and being beaten up in the process.
And I vote. If for no other reason — and this election, there are plenty of reasons — than that I don’t like to treat lightly something that cost so much.