At 100, League still has work to do to expand voting
2020 is a special year when we commemorate 100 years of women's suffrage in the United States. Passage of the 19th Amendment was a major milestone along the path for equal rights for all, marking an extraordinary expansion of democracy in the United States.
Today, more women than ever are running for governor and other state constitutional offices. More women than ever are running for and serving in state general assemblies and in the U.S. Congress. Although we have yet to reach the milestone of our first female president, female presidential candidates are no longer regarded as anomalous, but viable contenders for the nation's highest office.
2020 is an especially poignant time for reflection for the League of Women Voters, an organization born directly out of the suffrage movement. Conceptualized at the National American Women's Suffrage Association in 1919 by Carrie Chapman Catt, the League was officially founded on Feb. 14, 1920, in Chicago. The League's original purpose was to enable 20 million women to exercise their newly acquired responsibilities as voters and use their power to participate in shaping public policy. Today, the League is a preeminent, nonpartisan civic organization whose primary mission is to empower voters, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity or political ideology, and defend democracy generally. Consequently, the League's existence as an organization is as meaningful as the history of women's suffrage itself.
The fight for women's suffrage was arduous and fraught with gender and racial tensions. Suffragists were maligned for their attempts to destroy the family unit. In the early 20th century, most men (and some women) believed that by encouraging women to vote, which had traditionally been a "man's function," suffragists could very well unravel the fabric of civil society. And despite its roots in the abolitionist movement, racism was rampant in the struggle for women's suffrage. Black suffragists endured isolation, marginalization and outright hostility by many of their white female counterparts, despite fighting zealously for the same cause.
Black women and men were routinely turned away from the ballot box, notwithstanding passage of both the 15th and 19th Amendments, which technically bestowed the right to vote upon black men and women respectively. Another 45 years would pass before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that finally removed impediments to voting like literacy tests and poll taxes.
Although we have made remarkable progress over the last century in enfranchising and empowering voters, there is still much work to be done. Many of the same social structures that sought to deny women the right to vote still persist, making it exceedingly difficult for women to permeate the highest echelon of political and professional participation. And we continue to combat the unrelenting attempts to impede rights of historically disenfranchised Americans to cast their ballots, from manufactured claims of rampant voter fraud to insidious schemes to disqualify voters for purely partisan advantage.
One hundred years later, the fight for equality is as strong as ever, not only for women, but for our country as a whole. Too much is at stake in this upcoming election cycle for any voter to be disengaged. But for the League of Women Voters, our work simply continues. We have been and will remain a steadfast group of women and men of all ages, stages and affiliations committed to empowering voters and defending democracy for one simple reason -- we aren't done yet.
Audra Wilson, of Chicago, is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, a 3,000-member branch of the national League of Women Voters. The League is a nonpartisan, civic engagement group that seeks to influence public policy through education and advocacy.