Women of Santa Barbara reflect on suffrage history
It’s been a little over a century since the 72-year struggle of women’s blood, sweat and tears paid off.
Seventy-two years during which women were not considered equals, were not included, were not heard.
Seventy-two years of fighting, simply to be able to participate.
The movement began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York state.
Seventy-two years later, on Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote. California was the 18th state to ratify the amendment on Nov. 1, 1919.
As women and men alike reflect on this centennial with 21st-century morals and ideals, questions of history, democracy, diversity and inclusion surface, especially as the U.S. approaches its election season.
Vijaya Jammalamadaka is the president of the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara. She’s an immigrant from India and said that it’s important to commemorate the centennial while acknowledging the shortcomings.
“We speak with one voice, and we acknowledge that not all women got the right to vote,” she told the News-Press. “We take that very seriously.”
The League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara was founded by the leaders of the suffrage movement just six months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The organization promotes political responsibility and encourages active participation by educating voters.
“We stand on the shoulders of the women who fought for this,” Ms. Jammalamadaka said. “We should always remember that these things are not easy. It’s not easy to get a constitutional amendment. It took a lot of work on the part of the suffragists of all colors who worked on this.”
She said the League works to ensure black suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells have their place in history equally as prominent as that of white suffrage leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Caty Stanton.
“We’re looking forward to the next 100 years to be quite different from the last 100 years,” the league president said. “We’re going to be including more diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Eileen Boris is a UCSB professor in the Department of Feminist Studies, specifically teaching history, black studies and global studies. She told the News-Press she believes centennials are always a time for reflection and self-reflection.
“I thought about how fortunate I am to be born in the mid-century United States to be an eyewitness to the continual expansion of democratic participation and the willingness of people to put their bodies on the line for the provision of democracy and community,” she said. “There were women who dared to speak in public, to go against the norms, to demand and to practice public participation.”
She also pointed out the disproportionate population of women who actually got to vote after the ratification.
“We say that women got the vote in 1920, but in fact, many women didn’t get to vote,” Dr. Boris said. “In 1920, in the South in particular, the poll tax and literacy tests primarily excluded African-American women and some poor white women.”
It would be decades later before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit racial discrimination.
Dr. Boris mentioned an essay in which she argued that an intersectional feminism that considers all the social factors of identity such as race, gender, social class, ability, religion and etc., has developed through social movements such as Black Lives Matter, reproductive justice and women’s health.
“In the struggle, the bonds of sisterhood and friendship really propelled women forward in the first suffrage movement,” the professor said. “The women’s suffrage movement, in both its militant wing and its more constitutional wing, pioneered advertising. Wearing banners and sashes because it wasn’t considered ‘ladylike’ … They really were pioneering political action, and you’re seeing that today as well with new social media.”
Leila Rupp is the acting dean of the graduate division and a professor of Feminist Studies at UCSB. She said in considering the centennial, she begged the question, “Should we celebrate?”
“From the time I turned eligible to vote, I’ve always voted and thought about suffrage when I did it. I never take it for granted,” she told the News-Press. “I think this centennial has a lot of issues. It’s a reminder that passage didn’t mean all women could vote, that even though there were lots of different races and ethnicities of women involved in the suffrage movement, it was white women who benefited. There was a lot else that had to happen.”
However, she said activists learned a lot from the suffragists, including strategies and tactics such as marching in the streets and picketing.
“This was a big move that enfranchised a big group of women, and that led the way to all sorts of things,” Dr. Rupp said. “There’s a history we are not proud of, but there’s also a lot to celebrate.”