Juggling Act: 100 years since women got the vote, there's work to be done

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

My 12-year-old daughter wears a pink and green shirt with an optimistic phrase that I hope is one day reality: “The future is equal.”

One hundred years after the 19th amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote — the anniversary was Tuesday — our society is more equal than it was a century ago and yet there are still disparities.

Shortly after Tennessee voted to ratify the 19th amendment, Alice Paul, head of the National Women's Party, sewed the 36th star on a banner in August 1920.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women now hold 26, or 26%, of the 100 seats in the Senate and 101, or 23.2%, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. But progress has been slow at the statewide-level where women hold nearly 29%  of  elective offices, just slightly higher than 1999 levels of 27.6%.

Michigan certainly made history in 2018 when for the first time, three women – Gov. Gretcher Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelynn Benson — captured statewide offices in the same election.

The 19th amendment’s anniversary is a reminder that progress takes time. Suffragists (and there is a difference between the term "suffragist" and "suffragette") fought for decades to secure the right to vote, lobbying lawmakers, enduring hunger strikes, even burning speeches on democracy in front of the White House.

Margaret Whittemore was a Detroit suffragist who spent time in jail in 1917 during her fight for the women’s vote. Her offense: clapping during the court hearing of a fellow suffragist. She also went on a 20-state road trip to encourage women to run for elected office.

Soon, Whittemore’s name will be part of a $2 million memorial in Virginia, honoring the suffragists who fought and were jailed fighting for what is now considered a basic right.

Michigan was actually one of the first states in the country to ratify the 19th amendment. Wisconsin was first and then Michigan approved the measure, ratifying it in June of 1918.

Michigan’s progress since then is most evident in its statewide leadership, said Meaghan Bergman, program  manager with UGoGirls and Hall of Fame and Michigan Women Forward. Michigan Women Forward, a nonprofit that supports women entrepreneurs, is hosting two virtual panel discussions on Wednesday focusing on women’s suffrage. Both are free and open to the public. Her Voice Her Vote, from 3-4 p.m., will include Whitmer, Secretary of State Benson and Dr. Rashida Harrison (go to miwf.org for information on how to register).

“In 2018 we elected 3 women to the 3 highest positions in our state government, not including a woman Chief Justice,” said Bergman in an email. “This is a direct result of the 19th Amendment and a perfect example of the fact that when women vote, women win!”

Women voters have the ability — and numbers — to move mountains, and elections (more than 50% of college-educated white women voted for President Trump in 2016). The 2018 midterm elections showed that when women come out in record numbers, they indeed put other women in office.

In November, let’s hope women again harness their voting power and use their voices at the ballot box. If the future is equal, we have to fight to make it that way.