When my mother was born, her mother, my grandmother, couldn’t vote. She could give birth, work a homestead with her husband, handle firearms in the wilderness, and wring a chicken’s neck for the stewpot, but she was disenfranchised because of her gender. My grandmother grew up in Wyoming, where women had the right to vote since 1896, but she had moved when she married, and was disenfranchised as a result. Perhaps that is why she always was interested in government and encouraged me to study government in college.
The women’s suffrage movement in the United States began in 1848, when women leaders demanded the right to vote during the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. In the 72 years that followed, women exercised the rights they did have – to lobby, march, picket, and protest – to gain the right to vote. Many women were imprisoned, and subjected to horrible abuses during incarceration, right here in Fairfax County. The United States Congress finally approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and sent it to the states for ratification. When the 36th state, Tennessee, voted to ratify, the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920, which now is known as Women’s Equality Day. Now, my grandmother could vote, regardless of where she lived!
However, the 19th Amendment did not guarantee the right to vote to all women in the United States. Native Americans did not gain that right until 1924; female Asian Pacific Islander Americans, incredibly, had to wait until 1952. In some southern states, including Virginia, the African American vote was suppressed until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Suppression affected not only female voters. I remember my uncle, a retired Army officer, telling me, in 1965, that he had to return home from his Belle Haven polling place because he forgot the bring his receipt proving he paid the poll tax before being allowed to vote. Coming from Oregon, which abolished the poll tax in 1910, I was appalled! Fortunately, the requirement to pay a poll tax in order to qualify to vote was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1966, but it remained on the books of the Acts of Assembly until this year.
As noted above, in 1917, many suffragists were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in southern Fairfax County, simply because they participated in protests in front of the White House. Their imprisonment proved to be the turning point in the quest for the vote, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment was to be celebrated by the dedication of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial at Occoquan Regional Park. The groundbreaking was accomplished last November, but Covid-19 has delayed the construction of the memorial. However, Turning Point will host a webinar and other activities to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote. Log on to https://suffragistmemorial.org for more information.
There’s a lot of chaos and trepidation about voting, and the sanctity of the vote, in this year’s presidential election, fomented by the president himself. Supporters of women’s suffrage worked too long and too hard to obtain and preserve the vote, and their vote is more important this year than ever before. The last day to register to vote in this year’s election is October 13.
You can apply now for an absentee ballot at fairfaxcounty.gov/elections/absentee, vote absentee in person at one of the satellite locations beginning on October 14, or vote at your regular polling place on November 3, 2020. My grandmother would be proud!
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]