Celebrate women’s rights - and keep them going

September 1, 2020

 

 It is insulting that one of the first criticisms of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick was the false claim that she “may be ineligible” due to the fact that her parents were not U.S. citizens when her mother gave birth to her in the state of California. Funny that while Harris was actually running for president against Biden and 23 others in the Democratic presidential primary earlier this year, the issue of her “eligibility” to serve as president never came up.

 

Clearly, the opposition didn’t take her seriously back then. Also notable is the fact that Harris and former President Barack Obama, who both happen to be Black Americans, are the only two presidential candidates whose “natural born citizenship” has been called into question by detractors. For the record, you don’t have to be a descendant of someone who came over on the Mayflower to serve as president of this country. You just have to be born here, or born to U.S. citizens elsewhere if at least one of the parents resided in the United States or one of its outlying possessions prior to the person's birth. 

 

I bring this up because Harris stands on the shoulders of the thousands of women who braved adversity to orchestrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 100 years ago on Aug. 26. To date, this century-old amendment remains one of the most momentous leaps forward for women, as it gave them the right to vote. Actually, that’s not quite correct. Women weren’t “given” this right. They fought for it long and hard. It was, in every respect, a battle. 

 

This fight actually began in 1848, back when women could not own property, legally sign a contract, or control their own finances. Because they couldn’t vote, women had no leverage to make changes to what basically amounted to their position in society as “possessions” of either a father or a husband. And the idea of women voting was so preposterous at the time that even attendees of the first-ever women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York that year could barely pass a suffrage resolution among themselves. 

 

It took 72 years of organizing, picketing, marching, hunger strikes, and being beaten and jailed in order to convince the men holding power in the nation’s capital that it was in their best interest to allow women to vote. Some of their arguments were less than admirable: white supremacy and temperance, for example. In 1913, seven years from the finish line, suffragists Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and fellow members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association paraded along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Police officers did nothing as men attacked them. Nearly 100 women were hospitalized because of their injuries. Still, they persevered.

 

In January 1917, as Wilson was about to begin his second term, suffragists decided to picket outside the White House every single day until the 19th amendment passed. When the U.S. entered World War I that April, the picketing was seen as unpatriotic (sound familiar?), despite the women’s suffrage movement supporting the war effort. They were often attacked, arrested, and jailed for weeks or months at a time. In jail, they were subject to horrendous conditions and beatings (and probably more) by guards. It would be three more years before this fight would bring about the ratification of the 19th amendment. Even then, voting was mostly a white woman’s privilege. But it was a start.

 

Those efforts on the suffrage battlefield served as the catalyst for women around the United States to be able to shatter the political glass ceiling on state and local levels. Yet to date, only four women have been able to crack the national political vault: Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and now Kamala Harris. Here on Guam, Cynthia Johnston Torres and Lagrimas L.G. Untalan were our trailblazers - the first women to win seats in the Guam Legislature back in 1954. They too faced adversity, having eggs thrown at them at rallies and being accused of selling their bodies for votes. Today, Guam is the most progressive entity in the entire United States with regard to women in politics, as we have our first Maga’håga, the honorable Lourdes Leon Guerrero, and a two-thirds majority female Guam Legislature. 

 

While women have come a long way in the last 100 years,, the treatment of Ms. Harris proves we still have a long way to go. The United States, as no one needs reminding, has yet to elect a woman president. In that regard, we are behind 29 countries that Wikipedia reports as currently having female heads of state.

 

A USA today series by Nicole Carroll highlighting the Women of the Century from the 50 states and U.S. territories mentions activists Cecilia Cruz Bamba, Beatrice Flores Emsley, and Agueda Iglesias Johnston (Cynthia’s mother) from Guam, and Judge Ramona Villagomez Manglona from the CNMI as other trailblazers in our region. 

 

The headline of Carroll’s report notes that “Women of the Century didn’t succeed despite adversity, but often because of it.”

 

Here’s hoping that Kamala Harris and many other women around our nation do the same this year. 

Jayne Flores is the director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs and a long-time journalist. Contact her at jayneflores59@gmail.com.

 

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