The right to vote in local, state, and national elections is sacred. For a large faction of society, however, the ability to vote is a relatively recent privilege, as women were historically disenfranchised and had to fight to earn voting rights. The history of the women’s suffragist movement and the fight for gender equality throughout the United States was examined in the webinar 19th Amendment Centennial Celebration Panel presented by Judge Bibi M. Berry, Retired Judge Lynn A. Battaglia, Vanessa Atterbeary, Delegate of the Maryland House of Delegates and general counsel of the KRA corporation, Donna S. Edwards, President of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, and Dr. Ida E. Jones, archivist at Morgan State University.
The presentation, which was part of the 61st Annual Conference of Bar Presidents, commemorated women’s suffrage and discussed the movement from a past, present, and future perspective. The panelists first explained how the suffragette movement came about in the nineteenth century. The formal effort for suffrage began at a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 in which women discussed their desire to be citizens and developed the Declaration of Sentiments. No African American women were invited to the meeting, demonstrating a racial divide at that time between women seeking the right to vote. Over the next 72 years, however, women of all backgrounds and ethnicities joined together to fight for voting rights, culminating in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
The faculty then discussed the role the women’s labor movement played in bringing about the 19th Amendment. Initially, wealthy women drove the suffragette movement, but it eventually became evident that they needed the support of working women as well. As such, in 1905, the Women’s Trade Union League was asked to become a partner in the suffragette movement, and many of the suffragette parades and billboards after the partnership was formed came out of the labor movement. At that time, women were not only denied voting rights but were also treated disparately in the workplace and were denied admittance to many unions. Some unions were progressive, though, and allowed women to be members and helped them fight for equality and recognition.
In addition to the suffragette and labor movements, women in the early 20th century fought for equality in other arenas, such as the legal profession. In 1902, Etta Maddox became the first woman admitted to the Maryland Bar. At the time, Ms. Maddox and other female attorneys fought not only for the right to practice law but also for rights for all women, like the right to vote and own property. Notably, these women did not fight alone but were often helped and supported by the men in their lives.
Next, the faculty discussed the similarities between the suffragette movement and the country’s current racial justice movements. In both instances, institutional barriers and imbalanced treatment spurred people to fight for equal rights. The panelists noted that women have historically voted at higher rates than men, and black women, in particular, are one of the most reliable voting blocks. This suggests that women recognize and appreciate that they have a responsibility to vote for measures that will provide rights and equality for all members of society.