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A century ago, some American women won the right to vote. Here’s what women say today

Voting matters to American women, who prove it by showing up at the polls. In every general election since 1984, they have turned out at slightly higher rates than male voters.

But it took hundreds of years before women in the United States gained the right to participate in the democracy they helped to create. If women were married, society viewed them as accessories to their husbands. They had no say in the policies and laws that shaped their lives, denied the right to go to the ballot box.

Women from all walks of life rallied, protested and petitioned for change and a chance to be heard for decades. Finally, a century ago on this date, the 19th Amendment was ratified, promising millions but not all American women the right to vote — an incomplete victory.

White women could vote, but women of color, particularly Black and Native American women, were left vulnerable and unprotected by the same constitutionally enshrined right up until the 1960s.

Racial tension splintered the suffragist movement, said Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive officer of the National Women’s Law Center. Though the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s equality had originally been aligned, white suffragists ultimately sacrificed equal rights for all in order to gain the right to vote for some.

A hundred years later, Goss Graves said the U.S. is “having those same conversations” and that the country “is acutely aware of the importance of our democracy and who gets to participate fully.” The rise of voter ID laws, voter suppression efforts and the lapse of the Voting Rights Act bring into sharp focus how fragile suffrage remains, she said.

“In many ways, we missed out on the promise of what the 19th Amendment could have been,” she said.

After President Trump’s inauguration, 54 percent of women said they disapproved of his performance, according to a February 2017 Marist poll. More than three years later, that perception has remained largely intact, rising to 59 percent. Trump has maintained higher approval ratings among men throughout his time in office. Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

This week, Sen. Kamala Harris will officially become the Democratic vice presidential nominee, the first Black woman and the first Indian American woman ever to appear on a national ticket. (Despite the historic moment, Harris’ background as a prosecutor has also drawn criticism and claims that she didn’t do enough to combat racial inequity in the criminal justice system.)

To C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Harris’ nomination is a moment to be celebrated. Four years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first woman ever to be named a major political party’s nominee for U.S. president. And while she lost the election to President Donald Trump, there were ripple effects: In the 2018 midterm elections, voters elected the highest number ever of women and people of color to Congress. And there are a record number of women running for Congress in 2020 — thanks in large part to a growing number of Republican women seeking office.

“We’ve come a long way, but there’s much more work to be done in our efforts to secure women’s leadership at the highest level of our government,” Mason said.

What does the right to vote mean to women across the U.S.? And what would they say to the women who fought for that right? Eleven female voters shared their perspective about this moment’s significance with the PBS NewsHour, in their own words.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy Darrilynne Arnelle-Mazyck

Darrilynne Arnelle-Mazyck

64, Maryland

“There’s a picture of myself and my mother, me going to vote in 1972. I turned 18, and that was a big deal. Because I think they had just passed the law that 18-year-olds could vote because of the Vietnam War — that, you know, if you were old enough to fight, then you should be old enough to vote. So that was a momentous occasion for me personally.

I wouldn’t be where I am without women fighting for the right to vote. Because 1972 was my first time voting, but I also was getting ready to enter college. And I was entering what had previously been an all-male college. I went on to medical school and, you know, these were very male dominated areas. And I don’t think that there would have been any kind of inclination to allowing women into those spheres without the right to vote. I mean, the right to vote brings pressure and in all sorts of places, not just the political sphere.

I really believe that there is a certain segment of women who do not believe that women ought to be in leadership, and it’s their bias. I think that the media has a problem. The way that they speak about women, what things that they give credence to, what things that they will speak about — a woman’s sexual history as opposed to a man’s, how a woman dresses, whether she wears pants, whether she wears a dress. How does her hair look? You know, there are all these things that we would never think about talking about a man, maybe, but we talk about it when it comes to a woman.

Number one [hurdle to voting] is that it’s not a national holiday. People have jobs, they have to work. People — unless you live in a relatively affluent community — you can count on staying in line for a number of hours and no one wants to do that, you know. So I think that not having it as a national holiday is a big barrier. Number two is, how elections are actually run and who runs them.

No one is guaranteed to win. We abide by — or we used to abide by — who wins. And, you know, that it’s majoritarian rule. And that has made us great. It’s made us an example to the rest of the world that a multicultural, multiracial, religiously diverse population can do this, you know, peacefully.”

Julie Boyd

48, Texas

My thoughts are just as equal as a man’s thoughts. I should be allowed to do just as what my husband is allowed to do. I think women have strong voices, loud voices, and we should be allowed to speak our minds. It really goes to equality. Many men these days don’t want to hear it. That’s their choice.

My mom used to work for the League of Women Voters when I was growing up. The diligence and the hard work she put into that and to see the numbers change throughout the years and to see the group of women going out saying, ‘Look, you have a power in you. Let’s use that power in a positive way.’

It’s about the right person. But if a woman gets in [the White House], I think that would move mountains. It would be unprecedented for the future of this country. I think we really need something like that. We still get the short end of the stick. I also think that some of the women don’t feel women can, and the big kicker is the emotion. That’s one of the greatest things I love about being a woman. I think that’s a barrier that shouldn’t be there.

I know my vote makes a difference, but I feel like when you approach the people you voted for, you’re too small. They’re onto bigger things. What is the hot button? Who’s going to listen to this one little person unless something major were to happen. I do [plan to vote for Trump this November]. I’m not real proud to say that, but I’m scared of the other side. That’s kind of where I am.

[To generations of women who were denied the right to vote], I would say I’m sorry that they were treated that way, that they weren’t treated equally. I would try to explain to them that even though they couldn’t vote, they still made a huge difference in our history, and they probably would have never known it, never felt that was what it feels like. I would say, ‘I’m sorry, but you did it. You helped pave the way.’”

Photo courtesy Valaria Duckworth

Valaria Duckworth

27, Illinois

It’s really easy [to vote] in Illinois. I’ve voted in every presidential election since I’ve turned 18. So it’s very much a habit. And it just seems like, you know, with everything going on, it’s pretty important to be heard and vote and be tallied out there.

When my father walked me in to vote on my 18th birthday, he had to stand next to me because it turns out that my actual role model who was bringing me in there was a registered felon, and he had never told me that. But he didn’t have the right to vote anymore in Illinois.

We had never had the discussion and it never crossed my mind the way he was so politically engaged that he didn’t vote, he couldn’t vote. He’s also a veteran, and our conversation after made me realize how important [the right to vote] was because he had had it taken away. The law wasn’t even on the books anymore that he’d broken — it was the unconstitutional gun ban in Chicago. He’s gotten it straightened out since then, but at the time, he couldn’t vote here.

My maternal grandfather is a German immigrant. And my understanding is one of his first ballots was for Eisenhower. My [Black] grandmother on the other hand, didn’t start voting until, like, Kennedy. So it was harder for her to manage to get approval to vote being a southern Arkansas woman. And then even my grandfather — her husband, my paternal grandparents — my grandfather was a veteran, but he didn’t have a proper birth certificate because of where he was born in Mississippi. So the Black side of the family actually started voting later, even though they were here longer.

I’ve worked in a couple of municipalities. Those local elections — that I was working on really early on at 19, 20 years old — told me that [that is] where your vote is more powerful because the margin is so small. It can be less than 1,000 votes — it can be a couple hundred votes — that makes the difference between who’s going to be sitting in that seat. So, you know, when people want to be apathetic about the big presidential election, the local ones still matter, too.

[The women that came before me are] why I vote, you know, like it very much is. It’s for all of all the lost potential, all the misspent potential, all the potential that couldn’t be realized at the time for an artificial pyramid scheme. For all the women that couldn’t get their votes counted, like that’s why it’s most important for us to be voting right now.”

Photo courtesy Barbara Fillion

Barbara Fillion

66, Ohio

“2016 was such a shock.

Our group of women chartered a bus from Cincinnati and went to the [Women’s March] and we stayed in touch. We have gotten active in local and state politics. A dear friend of mine was part of the founding board members for a new PAC that was formed in Ohio to help get more women in state and local office. I met the woman running to represent me in the Ohio State House. And she’s younger than my oldest son and is just fabulous. And so I’ve been her campaign mom for two races in a row now.

My state rep, two years ago, won her seat by 56 votes. And I got to be one of her observers at the recount because, obviously, that was less than half a percent. And I actually felt better about how our board of election runs having seen how that works.

On election night, she was 300 and a few votes behind. But we knew there were still outstanding absentee ballots and a lot of provisional ballots because [of] the scanning machine. And when they were counted, she was ahead by 56 votes. And that triggered an automatic recount. So I went, and it’s a fascinating process to watch.

We are the majority gender. And we are the ones who are impacted first when issues like the current pandemic, the current economic downturn and the current issues with education go south. I mean, there aren’t a whole hell of a lot of men who are worried about staying home with their kids and making sure they’re doing their remote learning. It’s moms who are juggling: ‘Did you do your schoolwork? Did I get my project done for work? How many Zoom calls am I on today?’ I love one of the taglines for our Matriots PAC in Ohio, which is, ‘When women lead, Ohio prospers.’ I like the fact that my current state rep. says, ‘I don’t consider myself a politician. I consider myself a public servant.’ And I think that tends to be the type of leadership we need in our legislatures, from city councils to the Oval Office, is people who consider their work public service, not politics. We’re woefully lacking in those in our current political climate.”

Photo courtesy Elizabeth Gallegos

Elizabeth Gallegos

59, California

“It’s hard to say [how my life has been affected by gaining the right to vote] because I’ve always had the right to vote. Even today, I think, I saw a story about how people were beaten and arrested and died — you know, women — for the right to vote. And I think it’s a shame that anybody would not use that right or take advantage of it. It’s not honoring the past, the people who sacrificed to get us here. So I have just done it as a responsibility my whole life.

Also, I like to tell people if they don’t vote, they lose the right to complain about the outcome!

My grandmother, who was born in 1910 and passed in 2007, was one of my inspirations. She always, even in her 90s, kept up with current events in the country and the world by reading newspapers. She always expressed her opinion and always voted.

I have never felt discouraged or that [my vote] didn’t count. I think if I did, I’d probably be less inclined to vote every election. But I truly believe that it does count so that I make it to every polling place, every time, whether it’s just a local or a national vote, it’s always important.

I’m trying to make sure that [the women who couldn’t vote in the past are] counted now. Women sacrificed to get me here. So I have an obligation to carry it forward.”

Photo courtesy Kaitlyn Hanks

Kaitlyn Hanks

18, Kansas

“Being a woman and voting to me is very important because it’s something that we weren’t able to do at one point. So I always feel the need to, like, if I have a chance to exercise a right that we fought for, I’m gonna go ahead and do that.

My mom is very active. She voted every single year, every single election that she could. And it’s something that is really big in our family, and it means a lot to go out and vote. And it’s really cool that I actually got to do that with my mom this year and be there at the same time that she was voting and knowing I could vote right along with her.

Not many people know how easy it is to register to vote. Not many people know where they can vote at, how to vote, things like that. Because it’s not broadcasted to our generation of younger adults. And people that are just now turning 18, at least the people in my community, a lot of our young voters aren’t registered to vote because they don’t know where to go and it’s just not broadcasted to people. Especially, like, our generation uses a lot of social media, and I can’t think of a day where I ever saw someone on social media talking about where to go register to vote, where to vote, who to vote for, candidates, things like that.

It’s definitely important to have women in [office] to show our perspectives of what we see and how we feel and how we act.

I think it’s really important that we should have a woman president, but I unfortunately don’t think that that’s going to happen anytime soon.

There are tons of women who can vote now. And I’m so glad that they fought the way that they did, and they demanded their right to vote the way that they did. I am so incredibly proud of all of them who fought and fought and fought, because they definitely made a change in our society now. There’s a lot more women going to the polls than there was 100 years ago, and there’s a lot more women in political positions than there ever was.”

Photo courtesy Jean Johnson

Jean Johnson

39, Michigan

“I generally always vote even in the smallest elections. Voting is a privilege, it’s a right. It’s an honor not only to take the time to research with the smallest elections, but nationally, the presidential election is huge. I worry about the state of the world if Trump were to get reelected. If I can find a way to get out of America, I will leave my stuff here.

I wrote [Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer on my birthday, or the day before my birthday, thanking her because I got to celebrate another year because she shut down the state [for the coronavirus].

“I’m grateful for the [women] that consistently marched in the streets for me to be able to vote.”

I knew more than a dozen people that died. I stopped counting.

There’d be days where multiple people I knew died who didn’t know each other. And then seeing people somewhere else in the country being like, ‘Do you know anyone that has COVID?’ Like, posting that. And like, I know people with COVID right now. It was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying. And I’m glad I got to stay home.

Voting for Gretchen Whitmer and seeing her response during the pandemic, keeping me and other people safe after Michigan was hit so hard early on, I’m so grateful I voted for her. I am so grateful people I know voted for her.

I’m grateful for the [women] that consistently marched in the streets for me to be able to vote.
To them, I would say thank you so much, because I regret the few times I did not vote. And I don’t take it for granted. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to get to have a say in my community and the nation.”

Nancy Kemp

73, Arkansas

“No, I doubt [I will vote this year]. I don’t know. They’ve got this whole United States — we don’t know if we’re coming or going, been there or already back. It’s a different story every time they open their mouths. … But boy, these Democrats and Republicans, all they do is fight and argue, and I don’t know anything about Joe Biden. Nothing. Personally, I think Trump’s done a decent job. So I don’t know if I’m gonna vote or not.

I just feel like women should have always had the right to vote. … We’ve never had [a woman as president] and I don’t think we ever will. There’s women a lot smarter than a lot of these men.”

Photo courtesy Dawn Mountain

Dawn Mountain

36, Montana

“Both of my parents were really encouraging when I started to get curious about the news. They didn’t always agree with me, but they would always try and talk about the issues with me and encouraged me to vote my conscience no matter what.

I’m a libertarian. So Dr. [Jo] Jorgenson has gone out of her way to be supportive of absolutely every facet of civil rights.

We have to be out there every day and be the feet on the ground that are actually spreading the message. I’ve done campaigning for candidates, I’ve been local treasurer for a candidate here in town and I’ve been a state representative for a campaign. And I’ve also been, you know, just the person calling, making those cold calls and asking them if they’ve even heard about the candidate. At that point, we’re fighting against a big media blackout. I think that if we were even to get half the media time share of coverage that Trump and Biden get automatically and for free, that everybody would be aware that they have more options.

[Voting Libertarian] meant that I could actually vote for somebody as opposed to voting against somebody, which is what my dad does. He always said that there was somebody to vote against, and that way you can make sure that you essentially voted for the lesser evil. I don’t want to vote for evil. If I don’t have the choice to vote for somebody who I actually agree with and who I actually feel should run this country, then I don’t want to vote at all. And 46 percent of the voting population agreed with me in 2016, they abstained from voting.”

Mary F. Parker

80, California

“I probably won’t be voting Republican this time. I don’t like the way the country is going, and I don’t like Trump. I wish they’d be able to run some other Repubican in the election. I just don’t like the way he handles things. It’s always somebody else’s fault. I don’t think he’s very professional. He’s kind of a bully. [I have been voting Republican] since I started voting at 21.

[Voting] makes me feel part of the citizens of the country. Women are valuable. I mean, as far as their opinions and all. I’m not what I would call a feminist. I’m just a regular citizen. I’m from a farming family. Farmers vote Republican in California. My grandparents — they always voted. My parents always voted. It was just something you did when you got to the age of being able to make a statement with your vote.”

Photo courtesy Elizabeth Tang

Elizabeth Tang

36, California

“My parents and I came to America, immigrated here in 2001. And it took us until 2012, I think, to get the citizenship. And so 2012, which was an election year between President Obama and Romney, that was the first election year that we were eligible to vote. It was so neat, such a new concept to us at that time. 2016 was the real official election year, or at least for our family. And on top of that, with Hillary Clinton being one of the candidates, such a historical moment — it made it extra special.

In the ‘90s, we heard about Hillary Clinton. And she’s just always been a really admiring figure. So I volunteered, I became a delegate to the convention for her. I went to the AAPI caucus and met Rep. Judy Chu, who is also another role model of mine. She’s the first Chinese American congresswoman. And being from Georgia, I was lucky enough to stand right next to John Lewis when we did the roll call and vote, and I was able to talk to him a little bit. So when he passed, to a lot of us in Georgia, it was a very emotional time.

On the day we went to vote, my mom and I went, and then it just so happened only a few days before, my grandma was able to join us from China for the first time. Because she’s like 86 already, so we’re taking care of her here. So it was her first time, like, seeing — obviously, she couldn’t vote — but it was her first time even seeing the voting process. Because in her, you know, 86 years of life, she’s never even seen anybody vote.

I don’t know about Americans that are born here that are more familiar with the voting process. But to me, at least, a relatively new citizen, I almost felt like I needed to learn how to vote. Because in 2012, like I said, it was my first voting experience. I didn’t even realize, ‘Oh, there are judges on the ballot’ or there are these things that you should have really looked into beforehand to make a decision. And so for 2016, for that round, I learned to look at the ballots beforehand and do the research. I think it does come with homework.

I wish [women in the past] could have been able to vote, because they were all smart people, like my grandma.

I wish they were able to vote always, and maybe society would have turned out to be much more different and much more advanced because of the variety of opinions that this whole other gender would have been able to share.”

Judy Woodruff recently shared her reflections on the first woman voter in her family, her grandmother. That story and others from notable women in journalism, politics, entertainment and more was compiled by First Woman Voter, a bipartisan effort to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Watch Judy’s story below.