Pamela Hovland | May/June

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Today, we stand on the shoulders of an impressive collection of utopian dreamers, determined reformers, and fearless radicals who challenged the status quo of their day to improve the gender imbalance of democracy and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

The suffrage movement was one of the most significant moments of political mobilization in our country’s history. The demand for equality at the ballot box began in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 with the world’s first women’s rights convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, prominent activists of the time, likely could not have imagined this task would require a sustained effort spanning several decades. A diverse collection of women were activated through meetings held in small communities like Norwalk, Wilton, and Ridgefield as well as by protests on a national stage attracting the media’s attention.

While it is important to look back at the rule-breaking strategies of the women (and the men) who got us here, it is even more important to look forward and ask ourselves what needs to change in order to make America more equitable. We reached out to local influencers—from the young to the not so young, from the political left to the right.

Who or what do you most admire about the suffrage movement?

KIMBERLY WILSON, actress, survivor: The Suffrage Movement had its obvious, and oft-named leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul, however, we must include the powerful voices and activism provided by former slaves and free black women including Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and many others.

In 1851, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, and delivered her powerful speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” That message of equality still resonates today. When the 19th Amendment was made law in 1920, it did not extend to women of color, Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians. This is the other historical truth: that discrimination, inequality, and racism blocked these women from their rights until the activism—including the tireless work  by Fannie Lou Hamer—helped to bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally afforded black women the right to vote in 1965. Forty-five years after the 19th Amendment was ratified!

SHARON SOBEL, The Turnover Shop of Wilton president, adjunct professor of English at UConn and Norwalk Community College, novelist: Margaret Fuller, the first editor of the Transcendentalist periodical, The Dial, is almost always overlooked as one of the inspirational lights of the early feminist and suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony credited her as an influence on her evolving philosophy, and Hawthorne may have used her as the inspiration for the literary characters Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter), and Zenobia (The Blythedale Romance). Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States. She was the first full-time American book reviewer, and the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College

HILDEGARD GROB, executive director, Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, Ridgefield: I admire all women who rose up and raised their voices in support of women’s votes. Yes, some came from privileged backgrounds and thus had the financial means to support their activism, but they all took the road less traveled and fought for their beliefs thereby defying social norms and expectations. I also admire the (smart!) men who stood beside them and supported them. They clearly understood that plurality and diversity is a huge advantage (and a competitive edge) in every aspect.

WILL HASKELL, State Senator Connecticut’s 26th District: In college, I took a course about Women in American politics. It was the first time I had learned about Alice Paul, which is a pretty sad reflection of the priorities contained in our history curriculum. I was astonished to read about the heroic hunger strike she organized in a D.C. jail. This strike eventually landed her in the hospital, where she was force-fed. Paul was singled out for placement in a psychopathic ward, not because she suffered from any mental illness, but instead because she steadfastly picketed outside President Wilson’s White House demanding the vote. Paul lived in our community at her home in Ridgefield, and her heroism is a reminder to all of us that we should never waste the opportunity to participate in our elections. Too many citizens, especially those in my generation, take the right to vote for granted and forget that Paul once starved herself so that our elections would be open to all.

BRENDA MCKINLEY, director, Ridgefield Library: I admire Sojourner Truth for her shear bravery in standing up for the rights of black women, and, truly, all people. Despite the inequality we still see today, we have so many opportunities and outlets for making change. It is difficult from our perspective in 2020 to fully grasp how extraordinary her activism was 100 years ago

ANN PETTIGREW NUNES, Policy, Strategic Information and Planning Branch Policy and Strategy Division, United Nations Population Fund: Our society expects so much, so fast. Political change cannot come fast the way we expect instant gratification for our ideas and our actions now. I hope that as adult women leaders, we can communicate to our girls today—the ones who will hold up the future—that change requires patience and persistence. History of movements tells such a long story, which includes steps forward and back. Refusal to accept the status quo, demanding change, makes change

 

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing women today?

KYELA MCGUIRE, 12 year old (seventh grader), Scotts Ridge Middle School, Ridgefield, member of Ms President US: I think the biggest problem women and girls face is social pressure. People are constantly inventing new molds for females to fit. Nothing a girl does is ever good enough. We’re told we need makeup to be pretty and when we put some on its “omg, what’s with all the makeup!” Much of this comes from social media. Your friend posts a Photoshopped picture on Instagram and deep inside you know it’s fake but you still end up saying, “Wow, that looks so awesome.” As soon as you open your Tik Tok there is a picture of girls doing the same little dance because they know what you have to do to be on the opening page and to get the most ‘likes.’ That is what drives us now—popularity and likes. Everyone is so focused on what everyone else needs from you, that we forget what we need from ourselves. What we need from ourselves is kindness, generosity and acceptance.

LIZ OSTERHUS FLEUETTE, executive director, Ms President US, Ridgefield: In the US, we have a deficit of women leaders in government positions. Women represent 51percent of the population and yet less than 24 percent of seats in Congress. We have not yet had a female President of the United States. Only three of the nine Supreme Court Justices are women. The result is that women’s experiences and views are not adequately represented in important policy decisions being made at the federal level. Women and girls today need to be continuously encouraged to become tomorrow’s leaders so that we can narrow the leadership gap and ensure their voices will be heard and reflected in the major decisions that impact their lives.

ISABELLE HARGROVE, corresponding secretary for the Norwalk Republican Town Committee: Violence against girls and women remains a daunting challenge globally. Institutionalized, culture-based violence is especially difficult to eradicate. Practices such as female genital cutting and child marriage still affect millions and are even happening in the United States. Every year, three million girls are cut worldwide and 12 million are subjected to child and forced marriage. There is work to be done!

HILDEGARD GROB, Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center: Unfortunately, we still live in a world where gender (and race) makes a difference in terms of opportunities and privileges. Women make up the majority of the population in the US (and across the globe), yet women are still not proportionally represented in government, not to mention the private sector. The role of women in society needs to be rebalanced where both genders have equal access to all roles. For example, women should be able to sit in the boardroom while men provide child/family care without being stigmatized and/or discriminated against. And work must be compensated equally irrespective of whether it’s done by a woman or man. Thus, the Equal Rights Amendment is critical.

LANE MURDOCK, 17-year-old activist, Ridgefield High School senior and founder of The National School Walkout: One of the biggest challenges for a woman today is the idea of identity. What it means to be a woman has been liberated. My generation has understood that you can be feminine or masculine or both or none at all and still be a woman. We believe that appearance is a form of self-expression and we are focused on how we can create a community that allows for women of all representations to feel part of the sisterhood. Throughout history women who have dared to represent themselves authentically have been hailed as feminist icons, so why should that change? As my generation grows older, the debate about who gets to call themselves a woman intensifies and I would like to one day see that end. People on both sides of the political aisle need to remember that even when we were fighting for the 19th amendment what it meant to be a woman was being redefined. History never changes, it just gets clearer.

CHRISTINE LODEWICK, Philip H. and Christine Lodewick Foundation, Ridgefield: Aside from women’s issues, climate change seems to be the most similarly pervasive challenge we face. Growing up on our Wisconsin dairy farm, my parents and grandfather continually demonstrated a strong concern for how we treated the world around us and this influenced my life. The word “sustainability” was not used in the ’50s but it would have been an excellent description of our lifestyle. Therefore, I am very disappointed with what seems to be a deliberate disdain for the science that provides evidence of climate change as well as the efforts to control it both legislatively and in our personal lives.

What is an example of compelling activism taking place?

JILL WARREN, 2019 Cornell University graduate, newly elected Republican member of the Wilton Planning + Zoning Board: So far this year, the most compelling events to me have been Dickinson College’s four-day sit-in for Title IX reforms and Berkeley High School’s week of protests against sexual harm. Both events demonstrate a spirit similar to that of the Suffragette movement in that these powerful women are unafraid of doing whatever it takes to achieve equality and fairness, whether this means the right to vote or the right to participate in an academic setting without encountering sexual and/or domestic violence.

What is an area of activism that you are personally involved with?

PEGGY REEVES, former director of elections for the State of Connecticut and a former state representative serving Wilton and Norwalk: For the last 25 years, I have been personally involved in protecting the right to vote, as a local election official, a state legislator, and the elections director for the state of Connecticut. Although women were granted the right to vote 100 years ago, many were unable to freely exercise that right until passage of civil rights laws, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But that law was weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013, and today voter suppression continues in many states. Voters are purged from the voter list, turned away from the polls, required to provide onerous voter identification forms, intimidated from voting with disinformation, unable to vote because of long lines created by a reduction in the number of voting sites in certain neighborhoods, and permanently disenfranchised for conviction of a felony.

DARLA SHAW, professor Emeritus, Western CT State University, department of Education and department of women’s studies: My activism, as a professor of women’s studies, involves empowering both boys and girls to reach beyond what they think they are capable of doing. I do this by exposing these students to role models, activities, mentors, books, field trips, and historical figures that can influence their lives in a positive manner. By providing my students with challenges slightly beyond their range and acting as their support net, I find that leadership skills can be built in almost every case. Many of my women students have a stronger leadership skill set than their male counterparts, but the male will usually be offered the leadership role over the female. After 63 years of full time teaching, and three bouts with a rare, aggressive cancer, I am not giving up.

STEPHANIE THOMAS, Norwalk small business owner, state representative candidate (143rd District): Although women gained the right to vote nationwide 100 years ago, black women and other marginalized groups of women were immediately discouraged from doing so via poll tax requirements, long waits to register, and violence. Even now, over 50 years since the Voting Rights Act, efforts are continually made to restrict ballot access. Connecticut, for example, is one of only a dozen states that does not allow early voting which means that if you have a boss who isn’t understanding or your train is late on election day, you cannot exercise this fundamental American right.

How do you feel about recent activity around the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment?

ELAINE TAI LAURIA: I think it’s fascinating how the movement was most intense in England and the United States, yet women won the right to vote in national elections in other countries much earlier, e.g. New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), and Norway (1913). This resistance was perhaps influenced strongly by economics—the desire to control power via money and property. It’s also interesting to see how women’s roles during WWI and WWII were regarded as vital to the war efforts, however afterwards their contributions were downplayed.

SHARON SOBEL: As a college student, I both organized and attended rallies for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in New York State. In the same month it passed, I was elected the first woman president of the largest student organization on campus. I had to defend my right to hold that position, and can’t believe that all these years later, I’m still defending the right to women’s equality under the law.