Today is election day in the States. Many people can be seen sporting their lapel sticker that lets the world know that they voted. Lines have been long at many polling places and the lines started early. More than once over the last few days I’ve had people tell me how glad they are that it’s almost over, all the campaign ads, the breathless “news” items detailing the latest candidate gaff, the vitriolic Facebook and Twitter comments, the billions of dollars spent, and the list goes on.
Earlier this week I visited the Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Being there a few days before the election was coincidental, but I appreciated how appropriate it felt. I found myself verging on tears more than once as I moved among the exhibits. I’ve known the basic history of women’s suffrage in America since my school days, but it’s easy to lose sight of just how long and hard a battle it was for women to gain their right to vote. In spite of the fear mongering excuses that were offered at the time for withholding voting rights from women, for example that women were not likely to educate themselves on the issues and would be too easily influenced by others, we’ve proven that women are capable of being thoughtful, well-informed voters who vote our own conscience. In spite of the stereotypical assumption that women are softer and more nurturing than men, we’ve proven that we can make tough decisions as capably as men can. In short we’ve proven that we are as capable as men of discharging our responsibilities as citizens and members of society.
I am still processing my responses and reactions to the material at the National Park and I’m sure will be writing more in the near future. However, here are some initial thoughts. We have the mistaken idea that once we’ve gained the right to something, the battle is finished and we can relax. History shows this isn’t true. Prior to my visit to the National Park, I had forgotten that after the founding of the United States, women in New Jersey were recognized as having the right to vote, which they exercised with increasing regularity for more than thirty years. Over the last few days I’ve been reading about the circumstances contributing to New Jersey giving women the vote, then taking it away. At the point when the state governmental authorities determined they could more firmly hold on to power by disenfranchising groups they believed were marginal, they did so under the guise of cleaning up corruption in the electoral processes. Groups who lost their right to vote included free blacks, aliens and women. Two hundred years later it seems our human desire to keep our grasp on power is again tempting us to try and disenfranchise groups on the margins of our society under the guise of cleaning up corruption in the election processes.
In many instances the objections given to support withholding voting rights from women sound eerily similar to discussions happening today about the role of women, particularly in conservative religious or traditional cultural settings. Historical objections to giving women the right to vote included the idea that women were to be sheltered and protected by their husbands or fathers and, therefore, didn’t need voting rights. Another concept put forward was that it is in a woman’s nature to prefer the environment of the home to the environment of business and government, and therefore women shouldn’t be expected to function outside of their created nature.
There is more to say and more to think about, but on this day of opportunity to peacefully participate in the democratic process, I am thankful that women are playing a significant role. May that never change.