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How far have we come? Women celebrate right to vote
0822Heather Casey
Heather Gollmar Casey

On Thursday, a group of Brenau University students plan to dress out in white, pick up some placards and recreate the image of the women who for years protested tirelessly in front of the White House, no matter what the weather was like, as the defining image of the women's suffrage movement.

They are celebrating the 90th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote.

The women, some of whom plan to wear long, white frocks with sashes of purple and gold — the colors of the suffrage movement — will stand in parade before Brenau buildings built in the same era and same Second Empire architectural style as the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, which served as a backdrop for early suffrage protesters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Certainly this bit of street theater celebrates a monumental milestone in our nation's history. However, the celebration also should remind us that in its 234 years, America has continuously grappled in one way or another with its citizens' voting rights.

Although states like New Jersey were on-again, off-again on the female suffrage issue, women did not get the right to vote nationally for a century and a half — and only then after constant prodding in a long, bitter and sometimes violent struggle.

In fact, Georgia's legislature did not ratify the 19th Amendment until February 1970, 50 years after it had already become the law of the land. And, ironically, this week also marks the anniversary of the 1906 Democratic primary election of Hoke Smith, the so-called "progressive" governor of Georgia who would spend the next two years pressing for enactment of laws that disenfranchised tens of thousands of African-American voters in the state.

This week's anniversary also should remind us that in many ways the struggle for women voters continues.

One of the students who will dress out for the tribute demonstration this week is Laura Bolling, an English major and president of the student organization sponsoring the event, Women Active and Vigilant for Equality.

Bolling knows that winning the right to vote was not an end nor was it sufficient to ensure women's equality. To her it is "a bitter irony that we look back at the steppingstone that allowed women the right to choose which man would ‘govern' her. It was a necessary step, but we're quite overdue for the next one."

The next step to which she refers is getting more women engaged in political affairs and public service.

Studies show that women in America do vote - in fact, they vote in far greater numbers than men. Yet, almost a century after women got the vote in this country, the United States ranks 73rd in the world for number of women in various countries' national parliaments.

Currently, only 90 women serve in the 535-member U.S. Congress, 17 in the Senate and 73 in the House.

The proportion of women in state legislatures is 24.5 percent, similar to the proportion of women serving in elected and appointed judicial posts around the country. Only three of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are women, which brings the grand total of women to have served on that court to four.

Voting is merely one way for women to demonstrate the full franchise of their citizenship. They also need to run for and get elected to public office in greater numbers, get involved with candidates and contribute money to campaigns, join political and public affairs action groups, take strong positions on important issues, and — if I can say this without it sounding too much like a commercial for the women in politics courses I teach — study the political processes so they can better understand how to work within them to create their own paths to power.

Certainly all of that is the example set forth by some earlier "Brenau women" who probably would have been right at home in their day with the long white dresses that the modern Brenau women plan to wear Thursday.

The first, Helen Dortch Longstreet, who graduated from the institution when it was Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, probably is known to most people merely as the widow of Civil War Gen. James Longstreet. By the time she married the general, however, she had already been the first woman in Georgia to serve as assistant state librarian and the true author of a law that enabled women to hold the state's top librarian office.

In 1899, she was Gainesville's "postmistress," another first for Georgia women. When her husband died in 1904, she threw herself fully into political activism, campaigning for women's suffrage among many other ahead-of-the-times issues.

Before she could legally vote, she supported Theodore Roosevelt's bid for president and served as a delegate to the 1912 Progressive Party convention that nominated her fellow environmentalist for president.

The second was Jeanette Rankin, who did not attend Brenau but lectured frequently at the institution. She was so much a part of Brenau that its founder created a special professorship for her, "The Peace Chair." Because of political backlash, however, Rankin never occupied the seat of learning.

The Montana native, who lived half the year just down the road from Brenau near Athens, was controversial to say the least.

She worked tirelessly to get her home state to allow women to vote four years ahead of the U.S. amendment, and in 1918 she became the first woman to be elected to Congress and the only woman ever elected to Congress representing Montana.

In addition to her work for voter rights, Rankin has the distinction of voting against the entry of the United States into both World War I and World War II, the only member of Congress to vote against the latter. She remained a pacifist, speaking out against all wars until her death in 1973, just as the United States wound down its involvement in Vietnam.

Many women today certainly are activists, and some move from a prominent association with an important public issue into broader political movements and elective office. That, however, is one of several paths they could follow.

The truth is that, when women actually run for office, they do quite well. In her 2005 study titled "How the Public Views Women Candidates," Kathleen Dolan observed that "when similarly situated women and men candidates are compared ... women win election as often as men do, and more often in some circumstances."

But here's an interesting fact: of the nine statewide offices contested by representatives of three political parties in the November general election, only five of the 27 candidates are women — and two of them are candidates for the same post.

Rather than dwell on the "long way baby" tobacco company motto of the past, let's view the history of the women's suffrage movement in the context of an early motto of the state lottery: You can't win if you don't play.

Heather Gollmar Casey is associate professor of political science at Brenau University.