As the old adage goes, women belong in the house … and the senate. That’s especially according to this past election, in which we not only broke the glass ceiling, we broke the record in the number of female candidates elected to state legislatures and Congress. And, nearly a century after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, it was women voters who put female candidates over the top.
As we celebrate this momentous moment, we must never take our right to vote for granted. Women’s suffrage was a long, hard-fought movement that lasted well over a century and emboldened female activists to raise their voices in a society that had long deemed them second-class citizens.
Alice Paul, a U.S.-born Quaker, was an influential leader in the movement and organized demonstrations in support of women’s right to vote. She unapologetically challenged President Woodrow Wilson through organized marches in Washington, D.C. In 1917, she along with 1,000 “Silent Sentinels,” camped outside the gates of the White House for months demanding equality. Her efforts did not go unnoticed. She was imprisoned for seven months and was threatened to be institutionalized. Paul did not give up. From prison, she led her fellow suffragists in a hunger strike. As their stories played out in the press, Americans expressed sympathy and President Wilson began to relent. He finally announced his support for a constitutional amendment in 1918. It would take two years for Congress to pass the Women’s Right to Vote Act and the states’ ratification to be certified.
Paul is only one of thousands of suffragists who fought tirelessly for women’s right to vote. Too many of us do not know their stories or even their names.
Why does our history matter? As we witness the inequality that still exists in this country, I feel it’s important to understand and respect the women’s rights movement as it demonstrates our collective struggle. We should recognize those who worked vigorously to achieve a more egalitarian society. It’s also important to know we still have a distance to go.
There are a number of reasons why this election, with a record number of women elected, is significant. Overcoming discrimination is certainly critical; but, perhaps, more importantly, it is having a strong voice in Washington and Harrisburg for women who have been for too long inadequately represented. Who better understands the needs and challenges women face? Who would fight harder for equal rights? Who would work more diligently to eliminate the inequalities that still exist in our society?
Even in 2018, women face significant hurdles. The wage gap continues to plague hard-working female workers who make on average 80.5 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. Women are still under-represented in elected offices, in corporate boardrooms and in every level throughout American workplaces. As the #MeToo movement documents, women continue to face harassment and sexual discrimination. And, politically, women’s rights are constantly under assault, from reproductive freedoms to access to affordable health care.
Our own president is condescending toward women, using sexist terms to insult them on their looks, intelligence and capabilities. He has bragged about inappropriately kissing and grabbing those in his grasp because, in his own words, he “can do anything.” Our president serves as the leader of our nation and sets the tone for deference and discourse. What message do his words and actions send?
Thankfully, voters sent a strong message on Nov. 6 that women are resilient leaders who should be respected and elected; and Congress should be more diverse. Not only will, for the first time, more than 100 women be sworn in as U.S. representatives, but the 116th Congress will represent greater diversity in regard to race, sexual orientation and religion.
Our fight for equality is not over, but we can learn so much from the women who blazed the trail. We owe activists like Alice Paul a debt of gratitude. If it weren’t for those who defied social norms and marched, lobbied, protested and performed civil disobedience, we would still be disenfranchised. I encourage all women to register to vote. Exercise the right for which so many fought for so long for us to have.
(Faraguna is a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress, which provides a “Working for Progress” column for every other Sunday edition. Learn more at SVProgress.org.)