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A century after 19th Amendment, Gloria Steinem on what challenges remain

Tuesday marks a full century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which says that the right to vote “should not be denied or abridged” on the basis of sex. We look back to the path to that milestone, and Judy Woodruff talks to longtime activist and scholar Gloria Steinem about what challenges remain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And today marks a full century since women won the right to vote, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

    It actually didn't expressly grant the right to vote. Instead, the 19th Amendment said that the right should not be denied or abridged on the basis of sex.

    We want to close tonight with a conversation with the feminist activist Gloria Steinem that I recorded earlier today and take a look at what was achieved then and in the decades since, as well as the struggles that remain.

    The battle for the right to vote began many decades earlier, and one of the driving moments came with the Seneca Falls Convention for equal rights in New York state in 1848. Roughly 300 women attended.

    In the decades that followed, the suffragette movement grew. Pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells organized protests, marches and greater awareness that led to political action.

    The U.S. House of Representatives finally approved it in May 1920, and the Senate followed two weeks later. Three-quarters of the states were needed to ratify, and Tennessee became the last to do so on August 18, 1920.

    But as hailed as the 19th Amendment was, the suffragist movement often sidelined women of color, and many faced huge obstacles for decades. While they showed up at the polls, black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women all faced difficulties with voter suppression.

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally guaranteed long-denied protections. Today, women's rights movements have grown again, including a drive to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, a campaign that first began in the 1970s.

    President Trump, who has been criticized for his own derogatory remarks about women in the past, marked the centennial today. That included a posthumous pardon for Susan B. Anthony. She was fined $100 after voting illegally in 1872.

    Today, I spoke with noted feminist activist and scholar Gloria Steinem.

    Gloria Steinem, thank you so much for joining us today.

    We're here to talk about the women's right to vote. But I think many Americans today take it for granted, because, what, more than half the electorate today is women. But the women who fought for that right to vote, it was a mighty struggle, wasn't it?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Yes, it was huge.

    And it included people we don't hear about enough. I mean, it included black suffragists. It included Native American suffragists. You know, I'm — actually, I'm grateful to The New York Times, because they're doing a good series about previously excluded figures that I recommend.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does that in any way take away from the legacy, do you think, of the 19th Amendment and the fight for women's right to vote for suffrage, because of the fact that it didn't include all women?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    No, it did include all women, in fact.

    And now we're just learning, the reporting of it has — the historical reporting of it has been a problem. For instance, before — a decade before Seneca Falls, there was a convention in New York that was half black and white women, and that should have been counted the beginning, rather than Seneca Falls.

    So, you know, in a way, there are two things, history and the past, and they are not the same.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I know many women I talk to today say, well, yes, it was great that women won the right to vote, but look at the struggles that continued over equal pay, over the right not to be harassed and abused in the workplace, over you name it.

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Yes.

    No, we have the right to vote. We still don't fully have the right to our own bodies. We are still subject to bodily invasion at a rate far exceeding that of men. So, it isn't — it came about first because it is, in a way, an imitative right. It is a right that men have.

    I think we have yet to understand the rights that the female half of the human race need as females.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the ability to elect women to public office, where they can make a difference.

    I mean, we celebrate the progress that's been made, but women are so far behind, whether you look at — clearly, there have been advances, but whether you look at local, state offices, the national level, women are not there.

  • Gloria Steinem:

    No. We have a long way to go. But history is repeating itself, in the sense that black women are the single most important and influential group in the Democratic Party, just as women of color were more influential in getting the vote, if you see what I mean.

    So, we can learn to be a little bit skeptical about the past from what we're seeing in the present.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to circle back to what you said about women of color were included, even though most people don't realize that.

    How much…

    (CROSSTALK)

    Go ahead. What were you going to…

  • Gloria Steinem:

    It wasn't as if women of color were included. That gives white women the power to include, if you see what I mean.

    It's that they were always more active, perhaps, with the parallel in front of us between sex and race, but they were always present.

    Yet Seneca Falls, in which there was only one person of color — and it was a man, Frederick Douglass — is counted as the beginning of the movement, rather than the 10-years-earlier convention in New York, which was equally white and black women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about another aspect of all this.

    And that is, when you talk to conservative — women who are conservative politically, and they talk about the women's movement often as if it's something other, as if what they believe leaves them out of the movement.

    For example, you mentioned reproductive rights. Many of them are anti-abortion. How do you think about that? How do you think about the tent for women?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Well, I think that we are guarding each other's rights.

    I mean, in guarding reproductive freedom or reproductive rights, I'm guarding my right to have an abortion, and I'm guarding her right not to, and not to be pressured into one. And it's on that basis that we can come together and that we often have come together. Once it's understood as guarding their right not to, then it's unifying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right now, today, the battle for the right to vote, the access to vote, how and whether votes are counted front and center, because President Trump is — has criticized mail-in voting. He is attacking the Postal Service.

    What is at stake in all this?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Democracy.

    I mean, he is not the president by the popular vote. He lost by three million votes. He knows that. He knows that, if we actually vote, he's out. So, he is now trying to eliminate or reduce our opportunity to vote.

    And that is unacceptable. We used to say, go to vote. Now we say, fight to vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where do you see the women's movement going from here?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Well, that's a huge, huge question.

    But I hope we are going into a world without adjectives. I hope that — you know, in a sense, I think we are perhaps learning from the coronavirus that sees humans as humans. The coronavirus does not see gender or race or class or nationality.

    And that is the direction we need to go in. And perhaps out of tragedy is coming a changed consciousness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you have some optimism or some hopefulness right now?

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Yes.

    Well, I try to be realistic, but hope is a form of planning. So, that should not be taken away from us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Going to remember that. Hope is a form of — a form of planning.

    Gloria Steinem, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Gloria Steinem:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, online, after this program — and we're so grateful, by the way, to Gloria Steinem. But, after this program, you can join us for a special digital preshow to kick off our convention coverage. That starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern with our own Daniel Bush. You can watch that on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour, or on our YouTube channel.

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