Meet the 2020 Smart Honorees
This is an opinion piece by Melanie R. Bridgeforth that originally appeared on AL.com.
I vividly recall casting my first vote. The dimly lit room. My eyes spanning every corner hoping to find another face or energy that mirrored my novice status. The adrenaline rush. And the humility that accompanied the legacy of the countless women and men who fought, were jailed, and some who died, so that I could stand tall in that cardboard encasement and exercise my voting power.
In his farewell message, the late John Lewis described the vote as the most powerful change agent we have in a democratic society. He also reminded us that it could be lost, because for many, it had to be won.
This month, our country reaches a historic milestone for the vote.
August 2020 is National Women’s Suffrage Month, designated by Congress in celebration of 100 years of the 19th Amendment. On August 26, 1920, the Amendment was certified and, on paper, a citizen’s right to vote was no longer permitted to “be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Not exactly a phrase that rolls right off the tongue.
So, instead, we often say, “The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.” It’s a simple phrase that attempts to tell a complex story. But it erases the multifaceted history of countless women and men who fought for equality under the law and obscures the commitment, coalition building, and powerful advocacy required for change. It also fails to acknowledge the reality that—in practice—the 19th Amendment only expanded the vote to White women. Despite the instrumental role of Black leadership and labor in achieving this historic victory, the legal barriers faced by Black women to vote would remain staunchly intact for nearly five more decades until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
An over-simplified and myopically focused version of women’s suffrage centers a seminal moment instead of a decades-long strategic movement characterized by incremental gains. And it could mistakenly lead some to believe women’s voting rights were a forgone conclusion, instead of a hard-fought victory made possible by one of the longest-running social reform efforts in our country’s history. In fact, many early organizers found their way to the cause as early as the 1830s through the movement to end the horrors of slavery, mirroring the strategies of abolitionist leaders.
On the eve of the suffrage centennial, let us celebrate the victory. Let us also be guided by a fuller, truer narrative of the movement as we decide how to best blaze a path forward for women. Replicating and scaling suffragists successful strategies where we can, and acknowledging the imperfections of the movement to ensure we not repeat them.
Because the fight for gender equity and equality is far from over, and—make no mistakes about it—a new movement for women is afoot.
According to a recent projection by the World Economic Forum, it will take the United States another 208 years to reach gender equality.
But the major wins of the past 100 years—from the 19th Amendment to the record number of women in the United States Congress today—demonstrate that progress is possible and offer powerful lessons as we consider anew the obstacles contributing to a 208 year-long wait for equality.
To sustain the movement, we must act now and commit for a lifetime. We must include and center the voices of all women, including and especially women of color. Until and unless we fully embrace that gender justice cannot exist without racial justice, all women will continue to be held back.
Engagement of women in all areas of public life— from voting to policy change—benefits everyone because when women move forward communities move with them. Though women make up more than half of the state’s population, they only make up 16 percent of the Alabama Legislature. Sweeping social change will not only require more women to show up at the ballot box, but also show up in the halls of the capitol to shape public policy on their own behalf.
While there is power in human capital, moving the needle for women also requires resources. Giving to organizations focused on women and girls is radically low, comprising only 1.6 percent of overall U.S. charitable giving. There is boundless potential in women’s collective giving, and public women’s foundations are necessary to amplify and leverage the impact of generous individuals by convening a diverse cohort of people already working and giving to eradicate gender disparities.
Winning the right vote was a critical step for women’s rights, but progress is never inevitable. Women are and must continue acting with our vote, our dollar, and our voice because equality and equity simply cannot wait.