By Kate Michelman and Carol Tracy, Co-Chairs of WomenVote PA
It’s hard to believe women only gained the right to vote 93 years ago today. That’s when the 19th Amendment — which prohibits any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote — was ratified.
The demand by American women for the right to vote emerged during the anti-slavery movement of the 1830’s and ’40s. Efforts gained momentum in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Fall Woman’s Rights Convention. But it wasn’t until our heightened involvement in WWI, that President Wilson said in 1918, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of right?”
It was a remarkable victory won after years of fighting, with women picketing, protesting, being arrested, jailed and force fed in the struggle to gain voting rights.
And so on August 26, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve it, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law. Women could vote in the fall elections that year, including in the Presidential election where Republican Warren G. Harding beat Democrat James. M. Cox.
Fast forward to today and the question for women is: How have we used that right over the years? Are we exercising our right to vote? And are we doing so in an educated manner? Do we understand the direct relationship between our vote and the policies and laws that impact our lives, including our reproductive rights, economic security, and freedom from violence? Or do we take this right for granted and forget all of the rights that are and could be affected if we exercised our voting power to its fullest extent?
According to the Voter Participation Center, unmarried women — women who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed– are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the United States. Yet of these 53 million unmarried women of voting age, only an astonishing 39% were even registered to vote in 2010.
It seems women turn out for Presidential elections. The 2012 Presidential election was correctly proclaimed the “year of the woman.” Our voting patterns resulted in an “18-point gender gap that largely contributed to the president’s re-election.”
Just think what we could accomplish with higher participation in elections for offices below the Presidential level. It is these elections that have the greatest impact on the daily lives of women. The selection of the members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, Governor as well as the U.S. House and Senate does more than the election of a President to determine real policy implications and effects on equality for women.
Unfortunately, women are not registering to vote and showing up to the polls for those elections in numbers that would allow them to have the voice they should have. For example, in 2008, about six million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential race. Two years later, only four million voted in the U.S. Senate race. The majority of the two million Pennsylvanians who voted in 2008 but not in 2010 were women.
What this means is simple: the voices of the women who did not vote were not heard on issues that directly affect them. They had no say in the debates that came before our Congress and General Assembly for the last several years involving issues critical to women — health care reform, reproductive rights, pregnancy discrimination, violence against women, food stamps, paid sick leave and pay equity. While these issues disproportionately affect women and their children, the women who did not vote had no say in the election of legislators and other state officials who would decide to slash funding, change eligibility rules or even eliminate vital programs.
It’s an understatement to say that the changes wrought by the 2010 elections did not auger well for the women of Pennsylvania or the nation, whether they voted or not. The real question on this anniversary of women’s suffrage is whether women will make their voices heard next year.
We know that voting isn’t easy in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has among the most restrictive voting laws in the country. While many states have same day registration, mail in ballots and other processes to facilitate voting, Pennsylvania does not. It takes a lot of effort for Pennsylvania women with jobs and family responsibilities to take the time to go to the polls. Compounding these challenges, Pennsylvania is one of the state’s leading the effort to further restrict voting by passing an unnecessary and burdensome voter ID law (which thankfully has thus far been enjoined by the courts). But, too much is at stake in non-presidential elections not to vote, no matter how inconvenient it might be.
Today, as we celebrate our hard-fought right to vote, let’s remind women of the importance of leveraging that right to ensure full participation in electing and re-electing leaders who are committed to women’s equality.
Kate Michelman is co-chair of WomenVote PA, an organization that educates, engages, and mobilizes Pennsylvanians to make equality a reality for women. She is also president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.”