Aug. 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. To celebrate, the AFL-CIO hosted a panel of women who are leaders in the labor movement, including AFT President Randi Weingarten. The panelists reflected on the lessons learned from 100 years of progress and highlighted issues affecting today’s working women, especially as the country heads into the 2020 election cycle.
Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, began the discussion by laying out the history behind the women’s suffrage movement. She pointed out that on Aug. 18, 1920, while millions of white women paraded the streets to celebrate the 19th Amendment’s ratification, millions more Black women remained shut out of the ballot box for decades longer, even though they had fiercely engaged in the 19th Amendment fight.
It took tireless work on the part of suffragists like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell to undo the decades of voter suppression that followed the ratification of the 19th Amendment, said Shuler. Now, 100 years later, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting women, especially women of color, the next election will be decided by women. “One hundred years is a lot to celebrate, but our work is far from complete. We are standing on the shoulders of the women who came before us,” Shuler said.
C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, moderated the panel. She said that there are lessons from the suffrage movement that women of today can carry into the future, particularly in this moment, because the president and others are using familiar tactics to splinter communities and stoke racial fear.
“The suffragettes knew that this was a long battle,” said Weingarten. “If something didn't happen miraculously after one rally, they didn’t get disappointed,” instead they organized and activated step by step, state by state. They also created coalitions with unlikely allies, like those in the prohibitionist movement, building “a big tent in terms of trying to get the right to vote, always having their eyes on the prize of the right to vote,” said Weingarten. “We can learn lessons in terms of resilience, tenacity, community building and things like that, because if we don't learn those lessons, we're never going to actually be able to create enduring change.”
Weingarten also acknowledge the need to be honest about racism within the suffrage movement. “We have to take lessons from the lack of diversity and exclusion that happened during that period of time,” she said referring to the Black women and others who organized for the right to vote alongside their white counterparts but were denied or delayed that right. “We have to understand how to walk in each other's shoes. … It is a lesson to not romanticize fights and coalitions, but actually make sure that those coalitions are better later on.”
Alvina Yeh, the executive director Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, said it was also important to acknowledge some of the painful history of racism within the labor movement, pointing out, for example, that the AFL endorsed the Chinese Exclusion Act, legislation that limited Chinese immigration and citizenship. “We have to be able to name some painful white supremacist, sexist, ableist histories in our own organizations, our own institutions, in order to be able to move on and to be able to work together as leaders in this movement, so that regular voters can see themselves represented … [and] know that we're not shying away from history.”
Cindy Estrada, vice president of the United Auto Workers, said celebrating this anniversary is exciting, but she added, “I also realize the enormity of how far we still need to go as women, and especially women of color. … What's exciting right now is that we're actually talking about the fact that women of color didn't get that right for five decades. The conversation is much larger now and amplified more around that than I think I've ever seen.”
The panelists agreed that creating coalitions united across race, gender and class lines is important to stay connected and to ensure that people see themselves reflected in the national political agenda, especially when it comes to the everyday issues that families struggle with today.
Having representation is great, but it’s not enough, said Yeh. “I think it's very, very exciting that on the centennial [of the 19th Amendment] we have a Black and South Asian woman running for vice president, which is completely groundbreaking. … We need to make sure that the candidates who are running for office represent not only who we are as people but the issues that we care about.”
As Election Day approaches, union members will rely on their organizing skills to increase voter turnout, especially among women.
“How we talk to our friends and family is the way that we're going to win this election, by just making sure that we're empowering our communities with the right messages to participate in this election,” said Yeh.
Estrada agreed, noting that continuing the conversation about voting is necessary because of the active voter suppression that is taking place across the country, including things like taking away post office boxes and closing down polling places. “I think we have to continue to tie it to suppressing the right to vote … and continue hammering at those bread-and-butter issues that affect all of our families,” she said. “Our only hope is what we do when we go to that ballot box, and what we do after to hold our politicians accountable.”
“I think the most effective way is just to talk to the people on their terms, on the issues that affect them, and be willing to hear them out, too,” said Cassie Hammond, chair of the Laborers' International Union of North America Women’s Caucus. “I think if you find the common ground, anything's possible.”