Locals celebrate century of women's right to vote
Tracy Chamberlin - 02/13/2020
All they wanted was a ballot. A century ago, women marched in towns and cities across the nation – many risking everything – just to have a voice and a vote.
“I’m not sure most of us really appreciate the depth and difficulty of the Suffrage Movement,” Trish Pegram, board member and past president of the League of Women Voters, said.
Suffragists were arrested, put in jail, mistreated and even attacked. While in jail, many starved themselves in protest and were force fed by authorities, Pegram explained.
“It was gruesome,” she added. “I don’t think that history is appreciated. If we really understood how hard it was, maybe we’d go out in more numbers to vote today.”
Long before the Suffragist Movement became a national story, several states, including Colorado, had already passed laws giving women the right to vote. Wyoming was the first in 1890, and Colorado followed in 1893. Just one year later, in 1894, women were elected to the state Legislature in Colorado – a first for the state and the nation.
By the turn of the century, Utah and Idaho were also on board. Still, it would take almost two decades to take the fight to Washington, D.C.
The 19th Amendment finally passed through Congress on June 4, 1919. The final step before it could become part of the U.S. Constitution was to have it ratified by at least two-thirds of the states. Back then, the magic number was 36.
Colorado made it official Dec. 12, but it would take another nine months to make it the law of the land. Tennessee became the last state needed on Aug. 18, 1920 – and it did so by just one vote. (Pegram recommends The Women’s Hour by Elaine Weiss to learn more about what happened in the final vote.)
“Women fought long and hard to get that right to vote, and it came down to Tennessee,” Jean Olsen, a member of the Durango Branch of the American Association of University Women, said. “It’s so important for us to use that right.”
Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, the fight was not over. It was left up to each state to decide who could vote.
Without a way to enforce and protect the law, it was still possible to deny women the right to vote by putting limitations on polling stations and requirements for registering voters. In an effort to create the much-needed protections, the Equal Rights Amendment was written a few years later in 1923.
It would take another 50 years, however, for the ERA to make its way to Congress. The amendment finally passed in 1972.
Then, like the 19th Amendment, it still needed to be ratified by two-thirds of the states to become a part of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, for the amendment’s supporters Congress set a 1979 deadline for that ratification.
Even though the deadline was later extended to 1982, it came and went without enough states signing on.
In recent years, however, a renewed push to approve the amendment emerged. Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017, and Illinois followed in 2018.
On Jan. 15, 2020, Virginia joined the effort, becoming the 38th and final state needed to reach the two-thirds threshold.
But, it’s not a done deal. Several states rescinded their ratification votes, and many say it’s simply too late. The debate now turns to the courts to decide if the original deadline for passage is valid.
While Pegram noted there’s an argument to be made that the ERA isn’t as necessary today as it was decades ago, she said the League of Women Voters supports making it part of the U.S. Constitution.
Get out and vote
Before the 19th Amendment was officially ratified by the states, many suffragists could already see what was coming and turned their attention to the future.
“What would be needed for all those new women voters would be education,” Pegram explained.
That was the reason the League of Women Voters was formed Feb. 14, 1920 – to educate women on registration, the issues and the candidates.
As the organization celebrates its founding this weekend, several events are planned. It started with a Monday night reveal party for the official poster and T-shirt for the local 19th Amendment Committee, which is made up of members of the League and the American Association of University Women.
Hayley Kirkman, executive director of the Durango Creative District, created the brand. She said the design celebrates the nation’s victory a century ago and represents the battles still being fought today.
“I hope that we can acknowledge the incredible groundwork that was laid down for us 100 years ago and continue to build upon it,” Kirkman explained. “The first step being that everyone should vote, because so many before you dedicated their lives to making sure you get a say in your future.”
On Friday, the celebrations move to the new La Plata County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, with a tour of the facility and look inside the election process from noon-3 p.m. Following the tour, things head to Fort Lewis College with an unveiling of a new ballot drop box at the Center of Southwest Studies at 3:30 p.m., and the “Fall in Love With Voting” fair hosted by FLC’s Political Science Department, at 4 p.m.
The events don’t stop with the League’s anniversary this week. In May, the festivities continue with a mini-film festival. Then, on Aug. 22, is the big rally in Buckley Park, featuring readings, speakers and more.
As much as all the events are meant to celebrate the people who fought for the 19th Amendment and recognize the battles that still need to be fought today, according to Pegram, Olsen and others, it’s also a reminder that voting is what matters most.
“Voting is our voice in our democracy,” Olsen said. “It’s very important we all vote, that’s the right they fought so hard for 100 years ago.”
Thurs., Feb. 13
• “The Women Wore White,” part of the Life-Long Learning Lecture series, 7 p.m., FLC Noble Hall, Room 130.
Fri., Feb. 14
• Happy Birthday to the League of Women Voters and Open House at the County Clerk’s Office, noon-3 p.m., 679 Turner Dr.
• Campus Civic Engagement Kickoff, 3:30-5 p.m., FLC Center for Southwest Studies.
Sat., Aug. 22
• Rally and Celebration of the 19th Amendment, featuring speakers, live music and more, Buckley Park.
For happenings and updates throughout the year, visit the La Plata County League of Women Voters at www.lwvlaplata.org and the American Association of University Women at durango-co.aauw.net.