What commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment this year has shown me is that profound change can take an inordinate amount of time, but it doesn’t have to.
The 19th Amendment was first introduced in 1878, but it still took more than 40 years for enough states to ratify its passage. Seventy years passed between the first Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights in 1848 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Seventy years. Between 1848 and 1920, women could not be full participants in American society because they could not vote. For seven decades, women marched, met, gave speeches, even participated in hunger strikes to fight for the right to vote.
Presumably, one of the reasons it took so long for the 19th Amendment to be ratified was because men and some women in the 19th century saw a white woman’s role to be only in the home. White women were not allowed in business, were not supposed to be landowners and certainly were not thought to belong in politics and government.
Black women experienced something different
The reality for Black women, Black people, and every person of color at that time in our country was more dire. Black people, particularly Black women, were not only seen as not equal but less than human. Human beings not seen as equal to those with political, social and economic power.
That kind of refusal, the unwillingness to see another person who is different as equal, is still with us today.
Inequality shows up in the killing of unarmed Black and brown people. It shows up in denying people who were incarcerated the right to vote and in delivering harsher sentences to Black and brown people for crimes committed or not. It shows up in the need to pass an updated Voting Rights Act to secure every person’s right to vote. It shows up in detaining children who were brought or sent to the United States seeking refuge from Central American countries and not providing them with access to basic hygiene. Inequality shows up in discriminatory housing practices like redlining or using language of “suburban housewives” to send signals of racial animus. Inequality shows up in relegating women in the church to subordinate roles. Inequality shows up in requiring persons who identify as LGBTQ not to say or be who they are in the church.
Maintaining the status quo
And as it relates to the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, inequality shows up in maintaining the status quo. There were some leaders in women’s suffrage who got caught up in inequality. To me, inequality is the potential fatal flaw of every human endeavor that strives for inclusion and progress.
What I find most inspiring about the women’s suffrage movement is not the wearing of white and sashes, or the lobbying efforts, or even the unwavering discipline that women in the 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrated in their fight for the vote. Instead, I am inspired by Ida B. Wells, who founded a Black suffragist organization, the Alpha Club, in 1913 in Chicago, amidst Black women being denied inclusion in the national women’s suffragist movement. Wells knew white suffragists were trying to subordinate Black women, including herself. So, she created a community for Black women to fight for their rights too.
The fact that some white suffragists did not see how Black people and white women could fight together for the right to vote shows that even persons who are fighting for equality can perceive someone else, at best, as competition, and at worst, as less than.
I have no doubt that seeing people who are different as equal shifts the power dynamics. I will not underestimate how scary it might be for so many to see what they deem as normal and traditional to change drastically and so quickly. And I honestly don’t believe anyone is exempt from having to change their thinking about someone at some point.
However, I firmly believe that meaningful change does not have to take seven decades. Lasting change can happen if people see they can accomplish their goals together. Responding to the urgency of now can happen when we see each other as equals, not the same, and when we focus on what we want together.
More lessons from COVID-19
One of the reasons I believe this is true is because of how the world has responded to the COVID-19 global pandemic that we are still experiencing.
“If the past several months has taught me anything, it is that human society can change quickly.”
If the past several months has taught me anything, it is that human society can change quickly. We can adapt. We can work together. We can change. But there has to be something that prompts that change. And sadly, that prompt is never easy or pleasant. Not everyone will see the need for change immediately. Still, when so many change the tide from one direction toward another, especially when that tide turns to more inclusion, more justice, more love, those same people who were satisfied with the status quo just might find themselves carried along to be convinced. And if not, they will find themselves outnumbered.
The urgency of equality is not partisan, or only an issue for communities of color, or a trend. The fight to be seen as persons worthy of equal rights has been with human society since the beginning — and will undoubtedly remain with us as long as human beings are human beings.
A lesson from Exodus
I believe it will be women, women of all ethnicities, who will together bring about swift transformational change. Like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1), who during a time of enslavement, oppression and infanticide shifted the course of history, so too can women today make a better future, as they already have been. Women are making a better future in the halls of Congress, in classrooms virtual and in-person, in hospitals, in churches, in homes, although not because those are the only places they are allowed to exert influence.
The midwives used what they did every day, delivering babies, and so can we use what we do every day, whatever that may be. Their daily work enabled the birth of Moses, sent by God to deliver a people. Our work today can be the place where God sends us to bring about the birth of a new future of equality and justice for all.
I will vote this year in honor of the decades-long work of women suffragists, particularly Ida B. Wells. But I also will use my daily work, the work I am compensated for, and the work that I am not, to join the long tradition of women whose actions made equality more attainable for someone else.
Tasha Gibson serves as program coordinator for PASSPORT Camps in Birmingham, Ala. She holds a master of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School and a degree in radio, TV and film from Howard University.