by Nicole Fitzsimmons, Asst. News Editor
Women’s Week 2020 at Manhattan College kicked off with a presentation and brief discussion about the long history and fight towards women’s suffrage and the intersectionality of this continuing social struggle of inequality.
Gerry Russo from the League of Women Voters visited Manhattan on Wed., March 5 to speak with a group of students and faculty members about the history of women’s voting rights in America. The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization that was established in 1920 to aid women in taking on larger roles in public affairs as they finally gained the right to vote in America. Today, the league focuses on educating, getting people out to vote, teaching people how to register to vote and participating in a number of events to connect with the public.
After continuing to watch the extremely poor voter turn- out in New York state, Gerry Russo joined the League of Women Voters in 2014. She began the presentation by speaking about how the right to vote is partly up to the states and how this fact has affected many demographics throughout history– and still does. To this day, states can put rules into place that challenge the concept of the national right to vote.
Russo provided the group with an example that hits close to home because it pertains to the voting system right here in New York.
“Today in New York State, if you’re in prison for a felony offense, you cannot vote,” Russo said. “If you are on probation for a felony offense, the law just changed, you might be able to vote, you have to talk to your probation officer. So this prison thing, when you look at how our prisons have exploded it really can affect people being allowed to vote and can make a big difference in how things turn out.”
The oppression that exists in the voting system has existed since our nation’s beginnings. Russo discussed the connection between African Americans and women, both of whom lacked the right to vote in America for a long part of history. In 1866, the American Equal Rights Association was founded by Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone. While it was quickly disbanded, one of the major issues presented by this association was the racist ideology of many suffragists.
“Their focus was suffrage for white women, not men of color, not women of color,” Russo said. “And, so we elevate these women because they did do an amazing amount of work. But we have to look at the reality of our history. And we weren’t always aware of the whole picture.”
It was not until 1870 that the 15th amendment was passed, stating that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race. The 14th amendment included the first mention of gender in the Constitution, yet worked in a way to eliminate women by declaring that only male citizens over 21 years old had the right to vote. Russo emphasizes that the right to vote was an intersectional struggle that connected with many other social justice struggles.
“It was interesting to hear that a lot of the women who were fighting for women’s suffrage, were also racist and didn’t see those rights as equally important. And so that really puts, you know, a setback on both of those fights for those rights,” said audience member, Darby Shea.
It was not until 1920 that women finally could not be denied the right to vote. After 41 years of rebellion, marching and invisibility, the 19th amendment was passed by the United States government. At the same time, women were still not equal in the eyes of the law.
Russo discussed the in- equality women were facing in the mid twentieth centur y. Women who were married could not have a credit card in their own name. Women who were married, could not own property or couldn’t get a mortgage without husband’s permission or working with them. She raised the question: are women considered citizens? Are they considered persons?
“The #metoo movement has taken so long to happen,” Russo said. “Having lived through those years, you had no rights. If somebody was harassing you, it was your responsibility to stay out of their way and protect yourself because there was no one to go to to complain to. And, you were told up front, ‘so and so’s a predator. Be careful, don’t get caught in a room, you know, alone with him.’ So, it was a really different world and the fact that from 1921 until now we’re still fighting for this.”
A common misconception amongst many Americans is that the Equal Rights Amendment has already been passed. Yet, Russo discussed with the group that it was not until 1970 that Michigan Democrat Matha Griffiths successfully brought it to the house floor. Still, the effort to pass it in at least 38 states was unsuccessful.
In the last two years, Illinois and Nevada joined the growing number of states in support of ratification. Earlier this year, Virginia’s ratification of the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] brought America to the necessary 38 states. Yet with the deadline for ratification long overdue, Congress needed to act. This February, after having passed the ERA through the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, the House passed HJ Resolution 79, eliminating the deadline for ratification and bringing us one step closer to making this historic amendment to the Constitution.
In an email to Russo, the US Representative for New York’s 10th Congressional District, Jerry Nadler, wrote “The ERA is not just a statement of equality, but a forceful weapon in the fight against the gender wage gap, pregnancy based workplace discrimination, absurd restrictions on abortion and reproductive healthcare, pervasive sexual violence and so many other consequences of a constitution, where equal rights are not explicitly guaranteed regardless of sex. I’m proud to say that the fight for the ERA through the House Judiciary Committee as chairman and cannot be more pleased that we are closer than ever before to enshrine women’s equality in the Constitution.”
Nadler played an important role and managed time on the floor when the significant HJ Resolution 79 was passed to eliminate the deadline for ratification of the amendment.
To end her presentation, Russo emphasized the power that is held in the hands of the public. By emailing, sending letters and communicating to representatives in any way, you are getting your voice heard. She emphasizes that they do listen to their constituents. They want to know and they want to get re-elected.
“You guys have to carry the ball and and continue fighting this fight. I’m so sorry that this much later you guys are still stuck with it. But there it is,” Russo said.