2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the women's right to vote -- a centennial spotlighting that, just a lifetime ago, half the population didn’t have a voice in their own democracy, as well as the need to extend and protect the right to vote for American citizens of all stripes and creeds today.
On Sept. 8, 1920, Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in American democratic affairs.
Though it should be noted it wasn’t a clean sweep for all female citizens. Executive Director Michelle Witte, of the Minnesota League of Women Voters, said the application of voting rights for non-Caucasian women, particularly of African American and Native American descent, weren’t realized for years or even decades after 1920.
The Minnesota League of Women Voters will host a celebratory event noon to 5 p.m., Sunday, at the state Capitol in honor of the occasion. Witte said the event is intended not only to honor the milestone in U.S. history, but also to remind people that voting is often a fragile and elusive right for many Americans.
While every citizen over the age of 18 (barring certain circumstances) has the right to vote ratified by the Constitution, there’s a wide gulf between inalienable rights in theory and their place in the real world. As such, suffrage of all kinds isn’t a milestone, she said, it’s a continual work in progress.
“Voting rights, while they’ve been expanding since the beginning of our country in 1776, they’re actually continuing to expand,” Witte said. “It’s been a long struggle to bring about what the Constitution, in many ways, ultimately envisioned -- that everyone has the right and ability in the pursuit of happiness.”
Witte noted this varies from state to state -- as each state has a large say in how voter rights are granted, exercised and enforced -- which has led to a checkered history of freedoms and abuses of power. Many Native Americans and African Americans couldn’t exercise their right to vote until the 1960 s and ‘70s, while pockets of discrimination remain -- communities of people who are still hampered from having their voices heard on account of skin color, social class, gender and age. These barriers take form in a number of economic, legal and sometimes physical hurdles.
“Democracy is a living, breathing thing,” Witte added. “Just because you get this vote, or amendment, or law, it doesn’t mean it changes everything. Everyone still has to be involved and the states still have to implement that.”
On the other hand, despite having the freedom to vote -- particularly in Minnesota’s robust and active voter population -- there’s a concerning lack of participation from sizeable groups of people, especially young people, said Becky LaPlante, president of the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area.
“It’s disappointing to see how many younger people don’t vote or take for granted the hard work,” LaPlante said. “It took over 70 years for women to gain the right to vote and for them just to blow it off and not vote -- it’s disturbing. With this coming election, it’s good to see more young people getting involved, but there’s a lack of interest and a lack of awareness.”
As a prominent female figure in Minnesota’s political stage, state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States marks a positive leap, and people should look forward, into the future, to enact positive change.
“There’s a lot of women’s groups that are going to celebrate this. It’s a milestone event. It’s been a hundred years,” Ruud said. “I know many women stood out so we could have these opportunities. My mother was one of them. I don’t think there’s anything that women can’t do and I appreciate the women who came before me.”
Be that as it may, Ruud said the point of equality is for gender -- among other identifiers -- to not be a factor when it comes to voting or elected leadership. A person’s gender (or other identifiers) should be an afterthought in comparison to their abilities, merits and content of character, she said, not whether their identity fits a narrative.
“I focus on what we can accomplish in the future and not dwelling in the past,” Ruud said. “We talk about diversity, but I think the perspective should be it’s the best person for the job, not filling quotas on gender, skin color or whatever. I’m hoping, after a hundred years after we were allowed to vote, that we have that perspective more in mind.”