The fact that Super Tuesday, International Women’s Day, and events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment are all happening during March 2020 really got me thinking. Specifically, thinking about what it means to be a woman and a citizen of the United States at this point in history.
Years ago, I had the extraordinary luck to meet Jean, one of the women who bravely carried the banner in a Philadelphia women’s suffrage parade during the early 1910s. Through the connections of a friend who shared my feminist sympathies, we arranged a meeting at Jean’s family home outside the city.
When the tiny 95-year-old answered our knock, she was properly dressed to receive guests—complete with Sunday-suitable hat and gloves—and warmly welcomed us into the parlor. It was a time warp, filled with pre-Revolutionary antiques, hand-hooked rugs, shelves of musty hardback books, and a low table set for tea. As she ushered us to our seats, Jean proudly shared that the home once billeted George Washington during a visit to the troops in Pennsylvania.
Being surrounded by so much history—not to mention someone I considered a personal heroine—was a heady experience. So, I confess to having little recollection of our conversation that day. But one particular anecdote she shared stayed with me. The day of the suffrage march was so windy that, at one point, a gust caught the banner and Jean was lifted completely off her feet. Yet she persisted. As she resolutely gripped the banner, several fellow suffragists held on and pulled her back down to earth.
Jean’s story paints an “uplifting” picture of solidarity, sisterhood, and strength in numbers. But most of the stories from the long struggle for female enfranchisement and equality show a much darker side. Firsthand accounts from suffragists about brutal attacks by angry mobs, police, and guards; punishingly long prison sentences in horrific conditions; and being violently force-fed after going on hunger strikes to protest their treatment—all bear stark witness to what these women were willing to risk.
Like those who marched and picketed in Washington, DC, and other cities across the country, the women who marched with Jean that day in Philadelphia were aware they could face serious physical danger and irreparable damage to their relationships, livelihood, and reputation, but to their enduring credit they showed up anyway. All to pursue their right—and ours—to have a voice.
Now we need to decide what we are going to do with it. First, let's keep telling the suffragists’ stories. Not just to our daughters and sisters but also to our sons and brothers. We owe them—and ourselves—that much. Then we definitely need to speak up by exercising the right for which these female forbearers fought so long and hard. Finally, we need to keep lifting each other up.
So, register to vote. Be there whenever the polls are open. And, in the meantime, watch this for some additional inspiration!
Diane Landsman is Street Level Studio's Content Strategist.