As I See It: Rights and rewards of equality

The following is reprinted by permission from the Telegram & Gazette, 9/2/16.

The clerk in the convenience store was rejoicing. She confided that she was celebrating her twenty-first birthday that very day. I gave her my congratulations and asked her if she had registered to vote. She stopped smiling then, shrugged, and said that she did not think her vote counted for very much. 

In the nineteenth century, thousands of women of all ages and from all over the world desired the franchise, the right to cast their votes at the ballot box. Suffragists endured physical abuse in England, procrastination and broken promises in many countries, ridicule, hostility, and contempt here in United States. Yet they persevered, and with good reasons for so doing. 

For centuries women were known socially as someone’s wife or daughter or were simply "old maids" if they lacked a husband. Their identity, status, and their roles were very limited. They could not man-age their own financial affairs; only a very few were able to attend men’s colleges or enter the medical or legal professions. Women did not run successfully for government offices. 

The delegates to the first National Woman’s Rights Convention held in Worcester in 1850 were well aware of the limitations imposed upon women. The attendees included Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelley Foster, and Lucy Stone. Speakers demanded equal rights for women, including the right to vote, own property, and be admitted to higher education, the legal and medical professions and the ministry. Sojourner Truth spoke of the conditions of slave women, advocating emancipation of slaves and giving them equal rights. 

The struggle for the franchise to which many women devoted their entire lives promised enormous rewards, not only for themselves, but also for the generations to follow. The vote gives an individual some measure of control over his or her own life. One can choose from among the candidates those who will best represent the needs of self and community. In America we have embraced a representative form of government: our elected representatives make the laws that affect us all — in economics, education, health, and personal protection. Our vote, therefore, will help to elect the candidates who function officially on our behalf. 

No one should infer, however, that there is a "woman’s point of view," or that women as a group necessarily disagree with the "men’s point of view." Women have differing opinions, just as men do, and so belong to different political parties and express a variety of opinions. The point here is that at the ballot box one can choose that candidate whose stated policies best agree with one’s own interests and whose plans seem best in addressing the problems in the community or nation. 

My Dutch grandmother understood this well. She came to this country in 1907 and became a naturalized citizen. In 1920 she was able to vote in the national election, for it was in that year that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted all women the right to vote: 

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Thereafter, my grandmother, devoted to her new country, voted in every election and prided herself on doing so. In her eighties, after an early snowstorm nearly paralyzed western Michigan, she placed my grandfather in a wheelchair and pushed him through the snow drifts to the polling place so they could both vote in the November elections. 

The perseverance of women engaged in the magnificent struggle for the franchise has yielded us rewards in our quest for equality in many other areas. Today more women than men attend college and receive bachelor’s degrees, and more women than before are admitted to graduate schools and achieve professional status. We manage our own financial affairs, own land, operate a business, or run for a government office. 

Much work is yet to be done, however. Equal pay for equal work is slowly becoming a reality. Many women are still underpaid, many with families to support. Economic inequalities must still be addressed, and young women should be encouraged to take advantage of educational opportunities as a stepping stone to greater financial stability for themselves and their families. While we celebrated Women’s Equality Day on August 26 last weekend, we must advocate our beliefs every day and take full advantage of those rights so dearly won, especially in voting, including this Thursday in the September 8 primary elections and on Tuesday November 8 in the national elections. 

So to my young friend, the convenience store clerk, I offer happy birthday wishes but wish to assure her that her vote does count, for together our votes will make a difference. The progress of humanity is made in small degrees, and the effort has been made by many who have gone before us. What we enjoy today is the result of their labors, and for future generations we can do no less than persevere and continue the struggle for equality in every area — health, employment, compensation, legal rights — not only for ourselves, but also for our children, their children, and the communities in which we live.

— Margaret Watson of Holden is a member of the Steering Committee of the Worcester Women’s History Project, which sponsored the August 26 celebration, and a member of the Greater Worcester League of Women Voters.

Published Date: 
September 18, 2016