Rubin: At the ballot box, 1920 seems like yesterday

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If you’ve been holding your breath or waiting for an elevator since 1920, it seems like a long time ago.

From a historical perspective, though, 1920 is pretty much the day before yesterday. So in that context, Hillary Clinton’s performance in the presidential race is noteworthy, even if she only won the silver medal.

That’s minimal consolation, of course, if you voted for her, let alone if you donated a bunch of money to her campaign and were hoping to be appointed ambassador to Burkina Faso.

But only 96 short years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to cast ballots, Clinton received 60,981,118 votes. Heck, even Jill Stein received 1.2 million.

Trust me, the home folks would not have believed it in 1920, and not just because the U.S. population was only 106 million. Also, Burkina Faso is a dump, and you’re better off staying here.

None of that is to say Clinton or her supporters should be satisfied to be runner-up, albeit a runner-up with more popular votes than the winner. And it’s not to suggest that there was a shortage of smart, capable women in 2014 or 1914 or 1814, when First Lady Dolley Madison had the presence of mind to retrieve George Washington’s portrait from the White House before those scurvy Englishmen torched the place.

The point is that even if we tend to think of women gaining access to the voting booth as ancient history, it isn’t.

If you are 50 years old, your grandparents were quite likely alive in 1920.

Henry Ford was still making the Model T in 1920. Pope John Paul II was born that year, and so was former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, who’s still alive.

Stevens is a Chicago Cubs fan, and in 1920, the Cubs weren’t pathetic and cute yet. They’d just had a few bad years, on their way to 108 of them.

Vices for all

It could have been worse. Liechtenstein, for instance, well known for being one of the hardest European nations to spell, did not allow women to vote until 1984.

But looking backward with 2016 eyes, it still seems absurd that for the United States’ first 144 years, half the population had no say. Where the Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal, it meant exactly that.

Into the early 20th Century, “Women didn’t go in bars,” says Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Society. “Women didn’t smoke.”

It took decades of protest marches in New York, Detroit and elsewhere, led by Susan B. Anthony and some equally committed people who didn’t wind up on coins, before suffragettes won women the right to choose which candidate to blame for everything. After that came sin, perdition and “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

“In the 20s,” notes Stone, with women emboldened, “dresses and haircuts started getting shorter.” Male vices became universal as the right to vote morphed into the right to knock back a brewski.

“There are still people around here who were born in 1920,” Stone says. “We’re still drinking beer, whiskey and milk, and it all tastes the same as it did back then.”

Not that long ago

A rather immediate downer was that Prohibition began in 1920. So did the NFL, a pairing that would not be compatible today.

The first commercial radio station, WWJ, took to the airwaves in Detroit.

Bat Masterson was still alive — not as an Old West lawman, but as a sportswriter in New York.

Ronald Reagan was 9 years old in 1920, Gerald Ford was 7, John F. Kennedy was 3. Actors Tony Randall and DeForest Kelley, Dr. McCoy on “Star Trek,” were born.

Locally, “that was kind of when Detroit was taking off,” Stone says, and now it’s taking off again.

It seems like old times — but it isn’t.