Today is Women’s Equality Day and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. To understand some of the history of the 19th amendment and what Women’s Equality Day means today, we checked in with Michelle Witte, Executive Director of League of Women Voters of Minnesota. We talked about the role women in Minnesota played in the suffrage movement and the work that still needs to be done to ensure equality for all women. Read the full Q+A here:
Many of us know generally about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, but what kind of role did Minnesotans play in the suffrage movement?
One strong theme that resonates across all our suffrage leaders is that of education. One of the suffrage banners read, “It all comes of teaching girls to read.” Minnesota suffragists tended to be well-educated and to be educators. They were also involved in the creation of many different civic groups, such as the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. They focused on the persistent introduction of legislation, and the ongoing use of education to persuade legislators to do the right thing.
We also had the famous Nellie Francis, who was a leader in the Black community and formed the Every Woman Suffrage Club, in recognition of Black women’s participation in the movement – but also in recognition of the strong segregation that was in place at the time, such that Black women needed to form their own suffrage groups.
We are very excited to showcase the story of suffragists in Minnesota through an upcoming exhibit at the Minnesota History Center titled “Votes for Women.” The exhibit is now opening in-part online on Aug. 26 here and we hope to have the full exhibit open in the spring.
From gaining the right for women to vote to now, how has the League of Women Voters evolved?
In learning about the history of suffrage, what I was most impressed with is expressed in the banner that reads “Not privilege but justice.” Women didn’t fight for the right to vote so they could have some sort of privilege or status – they wanted the vote for the justice they could do in the world, once they had the vote.
Once the 19th amendment was ratified, the suffrage associations across the nation were disbanded, but then created a new organization they believed would now help them to create a better world, especially for women and children – The League of Women Voters.
“This is the commencement and not the end” is what suffragist and first Minnesota LWV President Clara Ueland exclaimed as the 19th Amendment was ratified in Minnesota on Sept. 8, 1919. They immediately set out to learn about civics and issues and how to be involved in government, how to get elected to public office, how to lobby and advocate for the changes they wanted to see, and how to become full citizens within our democracy.
What does ‘Women’s Equality Day’ mean to you?
Equality, as we can see from so many of our current events, still remains a destination for many people and issues within our democracy. The 19th Amendment certainly opened up equality for women in terms of expanding voting rights. But we also know that the actual result of the 19th Amendment was not equality for all women. Native American women were not citizens until 1924, so therefore couldn’t vote legally until then. And most all people of color could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And of course, we still have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment for women across our country. So, for me, this is a great day indeed to celebrate equality for women as an ever-expanding goal. I find it also humbling to take stock of how hard so many women, and men, fought for me to have the right to vote today. And I know that it’s my job – all of our jobs – to continue to build that road for others yet to come.
Looking forward, what do you see as the next big initiative that needs to be tackled when it comes to voting rights?
We are fortunate to live in a state with the highest voter turnout in the nation and with many tried and true voter protections in place. However, each year, the League along with many other civic engagement organizations have to be on the defense against voter suppression. We at the League of Women Voters of Minnesota register most all of the newly naturalized citizens each year at their ceremonies – that’s almost 8,000 people a year and we believe we need to make voter registration more automatic. Other priority initiatives for voting rights include making voting by mail accessible to everyone, getting a fair and accurate census count and working against gerrymandering.
If somebody is interested in learning more or getting involved in your work, where should they go?
The League of Women Voters remains so critical today, as we need to be engaged in learning about our communities, registering and empowering voters, and defending our democracy through important advocacy. We encourage people to check out one of our 35 local Leagues or our State League and help us to make democracy work for everyone.
Learn more about the League at www.lwvmn.org.
Michelle Witte, Executive Director of League of Women Voters of Minnesota