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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Claire Rudolf Murphy: Suffrage movement has many lessons for us today

By Claire Rudolf Murphy

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Because of my passion for the courageous suffragists and their long battle for the vote, I have been lamenting the cancellation of live celebrations and how the significance of the anniversary might be lost amidst the many crises we face today. But upon reflection I realize that it could not be more fitting.

The suffrage movement has many lessons for us today. For 72 years, since the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, they never gave up, adjusting their methods as needed. They did not get bitter. They took action. Like today, the battle for the vote was played out against a backdrop of other concerns – ending slavery, the Civil War, World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic. Through it all they continued to fight for suffrage and still support the needs of our country. One blemish on the movement is that white suffrage leaders asked women of color to step back because they feared that leaders in white supremacist states would refuse to ratify the amendment. I have to believe that one hundred years later the suffragists would rectify this grave error by participating in today’s renewed fight for racial justice.

“We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” Substitute “all Americans” for “our daughters” and Susan B. Anthony’s words still ring true today.

The suffragists never favored one party over another. They supported leaders and elected officials who supported women’s voting. For them, it was never about politics. It was about doing the right thing. The League of Women Voters grew out of the suffrage movement and since 1920 has educated voters of all parties and worked for full access to the ballot. But too often nowadays, party politics is all we seem to have. A paralyzed Congress that votes along party lines and cannot compromise, even for a desperately needed second COVID relief package. A president who is incapable of formulating a national COVID policy when Americans are dying every day and wearing a mask is a political statement.

But one hundred years ago Washington Governor Louis Hart proved that political leaders made decisions based on party over country, and self-interest over regular citizens, back then, too. Our state has a long and proud history supporting women’s suffrage. In 1910 we were the fifth state in the nation to approve the women’s vote. But in 1920, months after the 19th Amendment had passed both houses of Congress, and thirty-four other states had ratified the amendment, Hart refused to call legislators back to Olympia. Even after legislators volunteered to forgo their per diem during the session. Wow.

How could Hart ignore the rights of 18 million women nationwide who still could not vote? Why wasn’t he worried about losing women’s votes in his re-election bid?

Finally, in March 1920, Hart realized that he did need to shore up support and called a special session. Ratification passed both houses unanimously, for number 35. Only one more state needed for ratification. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee legislature sealed the deal as number 36.

As critical as I am of Governor Hart, I must admit my own polarization. In October 2008 the Spokesman-Review published my guest editorial on that topic.

“I’ve been hanging out with too many people who think like I do. Because of concerns about the economy, climate change, health care and world peace, I believe this is the most important presidential election in my lifetime. But my ranting about the Bush presidency and McCain’s running mate have sent red-staters I meet running for cover. I came to the painful epiphany that my inflamed rhetoric was making things worse.”

Sadly, twelve years later our country is even more divided and I have added to it. We all need to take a final lesson from the suffragists. Work for the higher good. Go high when others go low. We are stronger together than pulled apart by lies and half-truths. For the survival of our democracy we must demand that our elected representatives, our courts and our president protect the rights of all Americans. To best honor the suffragists, John Lewis, and all activists who have risked their lives so that all American citizens had the right to vote, cast your ballot this November and make sure that it is counted.

Join us tonight at a silent, socially distant march in Polly Judd Park in Spokane at 7:30 p.m. Upon recommendation from the state health department we will wear masks and walk six feet apart. No singing, no shouting, just marching with signs. Local activist Inga Laurent will share a few words connecting the suffrage movement to current racial justice protests.

Claire Rudolf Murphy, of Spokane, is a member of the League of Women Voters and has written eighteen books for children and young adults, including the picture book “Marching With Aunt Susan: Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.”

Link to my 2008 editorial: