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After 100 years, the fight continues

This month we observe the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that declared no citizen could be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. We honor the women who fought for decades for this basic right in a democracy.

Thousands of women, including women of color, working class and immigrant women, joined this revolution to define their place in society. They put themselves in physical and economic jeopardy. Women had no legal existence. They couldn’t sign contracts, keep their own paycheck if they were married, have legal custody of their children, or access higher education.

The U.S. Constitution said nothing about voting rights but left it up to the states. The path to women’s suffrage in Oregon was arduous. In 1862, widowed women who owned property and had children could vote in school elections. However, women of color were excluded since they could not own property.

Between 1884 and 1910, Oregon voters defeated five referenda on women’s suffrage. Finally, in the fall of 1912, Oregon women won the battle with 52% of the men’s votes. Oregon joined a bloc of Western states while the rest of the country experienced entrenched resistance with the rise of Jim Crow laws and white supremacy. Activists were vilified, beaten, jailed and handcuffed to their cell doors. They were force-fed after initiating a hunger strike.

During the first women’s march on Washington in 1913, hundreds of participants were attacked by mobs and injured. The first picketers outside the White House were women demanding the right to vote. Many of the hundreds jailed were beaten, chained in stress positions and rendered unconscious.

This brutal treatment finally got the attention of politicians. The acknowledged value of the women’s war effort and the eventual but tepid support from President Woodrow Wilson continued to shift the balance in favor of women’s suffrage.

On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment finally became law, and 9 million primarily white women voted for president the following November. They were not given the vote; they won it in one of the longest social movements in our history.

The 19th Amendment was not an end but a beginning. After seven decades and three generations of suffragists, this was an overwhelming victory, but poll taxes, literacy tests and blatant ethnic barriers effectively prevented many African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans from admittance to the voting booth.

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans full citizenship but numerous tactics kept them from the polls. In 1952 Asian Americans gained citizenship and the right to vote. In 1961, citizens of D.C. gained the franchise but citizens of U.S. territories still have no voice in federal elections. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the African American ballot.

Poll taxes and literacy tests were deemed illegal in 1964 by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, but sadly, disenfranchisement still continues today, particularly for people of color, the elderly, students and those with disabilities. Strategies include reduction in early voting, voter ID laws, purges of voter rolls, closing polls in poor neighborhoods, improper voting machines and requiring a witness for a mail-in ballot.

These intentional barriers need to ring an alarm with us. The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and it must be fair, equal and with easy access.

Since 1881 AAUW (American Association of University Women) has been a leading voice promoting equity for women. The organization supported the suffragists’ battle and continues to support the rights of all citizens to fair and easily accessible voting. To ensure fair, accessible elections for all Americans, AAUW is urging Congress to support the Voting Rights Advancement Act to eliminate measures that have been used historically to discriminate against voters.

In this critical time of global pandemic, health concerns dictate the necessity for national access to mail-in ballots. Oregonians, together with only four other states that conduct all elections by mail-in ballots, are in a fortunate position; nevertheless, there is much we can still do.

Make sure your voter registration is current (vote.org)

Encourage friends and family across the country to sign up for absentee ballots and to vote early (vote.org/absentee-ballot).

Join your neighborhood get-out-the-vote organizations.

This month as we honor the legacy of the suffragists we acknowledge the battle is not over until voting is easily accessible to all citizens. Let’s carry the spirit of the centennial forward and protect democracy by empowering voters.

Gretchen King of Ashland is a member of the Public Policy team of Ashland AAUW.

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