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A century of women shaping politics

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In 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it gave women the right to vote. It was the culmination of a nearly 100-year fight by American suffragists, and immediately the country began to see the benefits — and not just for women — according to Jen Miller, MA ’08, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

“Women are behind child labor laws, general labor laws, clean water, education funding, public designation of public parks, divorce rights, an end to forced child marriages,” Miller said.

Or as Leticia Wiggins, multimedia producer for WOSU Public Media, put it: “Women don’t help shape politics; they shape politics.”

Wiggins and Miller were a few of the historians who recently spoke about their personal views on voting and about how women have shaped our political landscape. 

 

Yolanda Zepeda

Assistant vice provost, Office of Diversity and Inclusion

I grew up at a time when civic duty and the notion of citizenship were explicitly taught in school. More importantly, for Mexican Americans in Texas, the 1970s were a time when we were finding our voice politically, thanks to the achievements of the United Farm Workers movement and La Raza activism. 

Women have long been involved in shaping U.S. politics. The United Farm Workers Movement, which was so critical to Chicana/o political power, would not have had the success and impact that it did were it not for Dolores Huerta.

She was then and continues to be a brilliant and strategic thinker, and a powerful advocate not only for farm workers, but for women — for birth control, family planning services, for the treatment of women of color in the workforce. She also advocates for all working poor, for LGBT rights and for immigrants.   

Voting is only a first step to participation, but it is fundamental. If the vote didn’t matter, the powerful elite in this country wouldn’t be working so hard to prevent us from voting. Democracy is messy, yes, but it only works when all voices are heard. 

Susan Hartmann

Professor emerita, Ohio State Department of History

I took voting for granted until I became a historian and learned about the (women’s) suffrage movement. The enormous effort on the part of thousands of women to obtain the right to vote made me realize how precious — at times precarious — that right is. I also became aware of how most white suffragists failed to fully embrace the efforts of Black women suffragists and to make sure the 19th Amendment protected the voting rights of Black women and other women of color, who did not fully gain the ballot until the Voting Rights Act Right of 1965.

By winning the right to vote, women brought about the largest expansion of democracy in the nation’s history. Women forced office-holders to pay attention to issues that are especially important to women, such as maternal health, education and child care.

Since the 1960s, they have mobilized behind critical laws banning various forms of sex discrimination. And since 1980, women have voted at higher rates than men, casting around 8.5 million votes more than men in the last mid-term elections. 

 

Sarah Paxton

Ohio State Department of History; producer of the Prologued podcast

In school, we are taught that voting is the very backbone of American society, and it is certainly a crucial part of our political process. However, as both a historian and a lawyer, I have seen how the vote has been both manipulated and denied for centuries.

Not all non-property owning/working class white men could vote until the mid-19th century, white women until 1920, Native Americans and Black Americans until the mid-20th century and so on. Even today, many laws and regulations disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. 

Living as a woman is not a singular experience. Women’s lives, including my own, are incredibly diverse and are shaped by their race, sexuality, gender identity, socio-economic class, education and myriad other factors. These overlapping facets of our identities determine how we individually experience and understand the impact of modern issues on both ourselves and others. 

Voting is an awesome and necessary expression of civic duty and service to our community. However, until all those who have the right to vote actually can vote, the power of voting cannot truly be realized. And fixing that is the goal moving forward.

Democracy is messy, yes, but it only works when all voices are heard.”
Yolanda Zepeda, Assistant vice provost, Ohio State's Office of Diversity and Inclusion

Jen Miller

Executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio

Most of us didn’t learn much about women’s suffrage, or the long work for racial justice in our history books. It’s unfortunate. Having an understanding of our history helps us decide where we want to go. We can be inspired and challenged to continue that work.  

The message of the universal suffrage movement, coming out of the anti-slavery conventions, was that our democracy will work better if we can all participate. That is as true today as it was 100 years ago.  

In 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed, we immediately start seeing changes. This is why women have to vote. If we do not, our interests will not be represented. Not all women vote the same way, we’re not a monolith, but in general women care about each other, our children and others’ children. Clearly from health care and education to economic policy, government affects our daily lives. 

Think about the debate around reproductive choice, where what we’re seeing are extreme bills out of the Legislature that are out of step with where most women are going to land. That’s a moment in time when women need to vote and raise their voices.  

Leticia Wiggins

Multimedia producer, WOSU Public Media

I remember entering the old church that was my voting precinct around the age of 18. Something about it felt so sacred. I didn’t feel old enough to be making decisions that felt so important.

That’s changed.

Now I feel the need to be part of a local and national voting conversation. And I’ve become more invested in local elections. It’s a greater hope to change things at the local level.

I have always felt voting an essential part of being an engaged citizen. What has changed is my understanding of those who are disillusioned by the process. I can understand why folks feel their vote doesn’t do enough. I get it. There’s a lot of hope that goes into this process of voting. Voting for someone to represent you is in part a hope they’ll serve honestly and will listen.

There has been so much work done by women, but also Black activists and other people of color who are fighting to enter the ring and have a say. This push for empowerment makes the vote important. It’s being part of a process that hopefully keeps this society running. That is powerful.