Thursday, August 26, 2010

Celebrating the 19th Amendment: The Struggles of our Grandmothers, the Rights of Our Daughters

Written by Julie Burkhart, Executive Director of Trust Women PAC
Originally posted on

This month marks the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which, after decades of long battles, gave women the right to vote in the United States. When you think about it, 90 years is a relatively short period of time – especially when you ponder things such as the age of the earth, human evolution or the wondrous redwood trees in the Western United States. However, when you’re engaged in the middle of a struggle, as many of us know, even a day can feel like a lifetime. Oppression slows the hands of time, as the oppressed are not fully able to realize the full potential of their lives.

Even within our own families, we have relatives whose lives have intersected with our own and who were well into adulthood before they had the right to vote. My great grandmother, Lillie, born in 1886, was 34 years old before she was able to benefit from the suffragist movement. She died when she was 101 years old so I benefited from a couple of decades spent with her.

I am now a mother to a nine-year-old daughter, Olivia - the apple of my eye. Even though she never met her great- great-grandmother, I work to instill what Lillie taught me as a child. I can remember having long conversations with her in the kitchen as she carefully dissected her daily grapefruit or as she baked a perfectly delicious angel food cake. These moments in time I seek to pass down to my daughter, so that she can also know what was important to Lillie.

When I look into her eyes, it breaks my heart that there are people in the world who do not believe, solely due to the sex of my child, that she’s not capable of full autonomy and rights. When I witness her natural curiosity, hunger for knowledge and unconditional embracement of the world, I know that it is only the oppressive structures and confines of our world that dampens the potential of women and girls.

Being a feminist mom, I try to lead by example and engage my daughter in a variety of discussions. Such discussions might involve talking about the meaning of feminism, what it’s like to be a teenager, how babies are made and born and the meaning of abortion. I always try to lay out the facts, without judgment, so she can then base her conclusions about such things on her own thoughts and feelings. It just so happened that we were driving home one day when I said something about purchasing “back-to-school” clothes and shoes. I’m not even sure what I said, but it set my daughter off on a lengthy diatribe about her body and the rights that she has to make decisions regarding all aspects of her body. It was crystal clear - my daughter had been listening to and absorbing everything I had been saying along the way.

When I was leading the pro-choice community response to the Summer of Mercy Renewal in 2001, when anti-choice groups descended upon Wichita, Kansas, to “finish the job” left unfinished from 1991’s Summer of Mercy, I encountered a situation that still haunts me. One hot summer day, I was standing across the street from Women’s Health Care Services, which was owned and operated by Dr. George Tiller, monitoring the crowds and looking for anything that may appear out of the ordinary. A verbal altercation broke out between anti-choice protestors and pro-choice supporters when an anti-choice man with a very young daughter turned to me and declared that he was proudly raising his daughter to be subservient to her future husband and to follow his rules.

This was absolutely heartbreaking to me. I looked into the brown eyes of that little girl with the dark wavy hair and saw nothing but wonder and curiosity about the world, but knew that some of her hopes and dreams may be dashed because of the strict gender roles that her father adheres to for women and men.

When I think about my daughter and that little girl, I think they deserve to have all the opportunities in the world available to them. They need not be limited by doctrine, or dogma, or fear. These little girls, who will one day be women, are feeling, thinking human beings who deserve to experience life to the fullest. Nothing less is acceptable for them.

Every day, I’m grateful to all the women who fought so tenaciously for universal suffrage; we are the beneficiaries of their vision for a better world. I’m grateful to my great grandmother for helping me understand civic responsibility and the tenuousness of our rights if we do not remain diligent. Without our foremothers, we would not have gained the rights we enjoy today. In these times, women and men go to the polls regularly to vote for candidates from president to city council. It’s almost an afterthought. Women are no longer expected to vote as their husbands or fathers or brothers vote; women vote the way in which they see fit.

I long for the day when all rights are fully realized for women; when women and girls can be freely educated, when women are paid a salary equal to men, when women have universal access to birth control and when women can make decisions about their pregnancies without interference. I thank Lillie for helping me understand the importance and I thank Olivia for her innocent approach to the world and being able to see its limitless possibilities.

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