At the women's college I attended, alumnae returning for class reunions wear white in deference to the original suffragettes. Last weekend at the Women's March, the dominant color was pink.
In San Luis Obispo alone, 6,000 turned out to say, "The time is now," embracing the mission of the Women's March, which states: "We work to unify our nation's diverse communities ... to create change from the grassroots. We recognize that there is no true peace, freedom, or inclusion without equity for all."
I want to thank everyone for showing up, for standing together. And I want to thank the suffragettes for the equity I enjoy today, for giving me the right to vote by passing the 19th Amendment 100 years ago. It's time to honor the enormous contributions of these women, while also honestly acknowledging their defects, which helped sow racial division and distrust.
Our activist forebears were grievously imperfect, but their work eventually led to the Women's Movement, introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX, #MeToo, and increasing numbers of women in office. Today, women hold more than 20 percent of the seats in the U.S. House and Senate. A woman, Nancy Pelosi, is Speaker of the House.
Communities across the nation are commemorating the centennial of the status-quo shattering 19th Amendment to the Constitution in tandem with events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the League of Women Voters (LWV).
In San Luis Obispo County, the League is hosting a luncheon on Feb. 22 featuring Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, the only woman of color to have served as president of the national LWV (1998-2002).
The luncheon is important because it marks our collective resolve to sustain democracy in a time of constitutional crisis. For those who may not know it, the League is the nation's largest nonpartisan citizen organization. For 100 years it has supported our aspirations to a truly democratic system by working to advance voter rights, voter registration, and voter education. In fact, among other things, the group also fights to increase voter access by expanding early voting as well as automatic and online voter registration.
The League has announced that "voting rights are under attack," citing campaigns to force discriminatory voter ID and proof-of-citizenship restrictions, reducing polling hours in communities of color, cutting early voting, and purging voters from the rolls. Obviously, the LWV may be nonpartisan, but "that does not mean a-political," former SLO Mayor Jan Marx said to me.
"We don't tell anyone how to vote—we provide opportunities at the local, state and national level to study topics and find consensus," said Ann Havlik, the local League's co-president. "It's a sad measure of this country's divide that many of our issues are now considered left-wing by some."
The League's membership includes Republicans, Democrats, men, and people of color. Sadly, that has not always been the case. From the 1920s to WWII, the League refused general membership for black women. Historians also recently revealed a true and complete portrait of suffragist hero Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who publicly called black men "Sambos" and rapists. The iconic photo of women in white at the head of the famous 1913 suffragist parade in Washington, D.C., does not show the back of the line, where women of color were forced to march.
League members justified their discrimination by claiming that white Southerners would not join the group alongside blacks. Instead, the national leadership allowed the establishment of "colored" leagues, betraying black women and League principles and bylaws.
We cannot excuse, sugarcoat, or ignore racism if we hope to fulfill the promise of our democratic nation and achieve the joyful and impassioned visions expressed by thousands of San Luis Obispans parading up Higuera Street during the Women's March. Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, among others, is bringing this racism to light—and by so doing, she is offering a path forward to healing.
"The League of Women Voters centennial provides the perfect opportunity to not only celebrate the passion, purpose, and perseverance of women of color who affiliated with the League, but to also elevate their contributions from the footnotes into the mainstream narrative of history," Jefferson-Jenkins told me.
The keynote speaker at the Feb. 22 event is the author of The Untold Story of Women of Color in the League of Women Voters.
"We are more than a footnote!" she said. "It is both my honor and my obligation to make sure that the accomplishment of the women upon whose shoulders I stand are also celebrated. The function of history is to move us forward."
"The League's past treatment of women of color is shameful," Havlik said. "The centennial gives us the opportunity to commit to a future defined by diversity, equality, and inclusion."
"When the League of Women Voters is at its best, it is a powerful, influential organization," noted Jefferson-Jenkins. With her guidance, we can acknowledge the League's full history while joining hands to fulfill its goal to "empower citizens to shape better communities worldwide."
That community was on display at the Women's March, where the color pink advanced our goals, not white.
For more information and to buy tickets for the Feb. 22 event, see my.lwv.org/california/san-luis-obispo-county/event/centennial-celebration-100-years-league-women-voters. Δ
Amy Hewes is a grassroots activist. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.