My earliest memory of learning about the 19th Amendment occurred when I was 11 years old. Our social studies teacher decided to do a “mock” election at school that day to see who we would vote for if we could: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, or Ross Perot. I did not vote. I cannot remember exactly why—I was not taking a stand against voting. A few people in my class decided not to vote. I can remember watching the debates with my dad who was at the time a supporter of Bush (at least according to my memory…). Maybe I didn’t want to publicly vote against my father (the votes were by show of hands). I certainly remember thinking Ross Perot was kind of a joke. But I don’t really remember why I decided not to vote. It just didn’t seem that important.
When I got home from school that day I told my mom about what had happened and she was appalled. I think my assessment that it didn’t matter because it was just a school activity anyway might have upset her most of all.
That was the first time I remember learning about women’s struggle for the right to vote. Maybe I knew before that day that there was a time when women couldn’t vote, but it didn’t mean much to me. But that afternoon, my mom explained to me how much it meant that women had won the right to vote and how important it is. She told me that I should ALWAYS exercise that right—even in a silly classroom activity.
I have thought about that day a number of times since then—mostly during times when I wondered if my vote mattered. Times when I felt pessimistic about our electoral system. Times when I questioned whether my voice had any chance of being heard. Those are the times when I need to hear that voice in my head, when I need to remember how crucial the right to vote really is.
So many things are going on within the USA today that remind me why my vote is needed. Voter ID laws have popped up around the country, making it more challenging for the elderly, minority and low-income individuals to vote. Anti-choice laws are making their way through state legislatures, slowly but surely whittling away women’s rights to control their own reproductive health. The gender wage gap continues with many estimates indicating that women make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make. Attempts to address this disparity (like passing the Paycheck Fairness Act) have been unsuccessful.
The 19th Amendment was an important marker on the road to women’s equality in this country, but we have much further to travel. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and to question whether any one person's vote can make a difference. But it matters who we elect to make, amend, and enforce our laws. Let's celebrate today the battle that was waged to win the right to vote, and honor that battle in our continued work to protect, cherish, and exercise that right.
-Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.