Credit: AP Photo; AP Photo; AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
The Evolving Power Of The Women’s Vote — And How Intersectional Storytelling Can Continue To Grow It
"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Dr. Pearl Dowe, Sandy Rattley and Sam Ramirez-Herrera.
While the 19th Amendment was passed by Congress 100 years ago last month, it was on Aug. 26 of 1920 that the proclamation of women’s right to vote was officially signed by the secretary of state. The fact that so few people know that Aug. 26 is Women’s Equality Day underscores that while much progress has been made over the last century, there is still a long way to go.
Last week, GPB celebrated Women’s Equality Day with a panel of storytellers, activists and scholars in a discussion moderated by On Second Thought host Virginia Prescott. Panelists Sandy Rattley, executive producer of the UNLADYLIKE 2020 PBS video series; Sam Ramirez-Herrera, social entrepreneur and activist; and Dr. Pearl Dowe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Emory University, elaborated on both the advances in women's rights and representation, as well as how to move the needle further.
On Black women's involvement in the suffrage movement
For Black women, particularly in the South, suffrage becomes bigger. It is not just about voting.
Dowe: Black women were in the suffrage movement really during Reconstruction. Black women would ostracize Black men who did not vote, or (if) they voted Democrat. So, for example, Black men would take out fliers in church bulletins, in local Black newspapers and say, "Tom Jones is voting Democrat. Don't court him. Don't have him over into your home. Don't give him a job." So Black women advocated, but they also were very conscious of the choices that were good for themselves in the Black community.
And so for Black women, particularly in the South, suffrage becomes bigger. It is not just about voting. It is also about advocating for these issues around Jim Crow, advocating for issues around re-enfranchisement of Black men, (and) opportunities for education. And so it becomes this holistic approach that Black women were bringing to the movement.
Unfortunately, it was ignored by white suffragettes, particularly when we look at how race divided the movement. That was a major issue, because what it did was, it did not allow for the suffrage movement to really move to an area where they could really address the issues of all women. Because as the suffrage to the New Deal era and into the women's rights movement, these issues about education and access and class become dominant issues that the women's movement struggles to address, and to bring in women who were not middle-class white women.
On the differences in voting patterns among white women and women of color
It has been Latinas and Black women that have pulled women towards Democrats.
Dowe: We have this perception that women — overall, just women — vote Democratic. Well, women do tend to vote more (for) the Democratic Party than the Republican Party than men. However, we really look at the data points, white women have only voted more Democratic in two elections since 1952: 1964 and 1996. They pretty much break even between both parties. It has been Latinas and Black women that have pulled women towards Democrats.
So, by not looking at the data and ignoring Black women particularly, we have not really looked at, who are the women that are voting for this party? And so it's no surprise when we see some of the data that we saw from 2016 — and even when we look at what happened here in Georgia with the gubernatorial race, right? In which 70% of white women voted for Kemp, but 92% of non-white women voted for Stacey Abrams. And so we continue to see these patterns. And so, I think oftentimes, because of how we have conflated race and gender, that we really have not really understood how white women actually vote, and how they see themselves in politics.
On the unexpected parallels Rattley discovered while producing the Unladylike video series
I did not expect for the history of a hundred years ago to actually be so prescient.
Rattley: Looking at history, I did not expect for the history of a hundred years ago to actually be so prescient, in terms of flashing forward and flashing back to where we are today. And looking at that time period in terms of nativism, Americanism, all of these anti-immigration language, eugenics — all of these things that actually, as you said, are "baked" in to the whole American experiment in democracy. You have consistently, across the course of history, had moments when there are surges forward, and then there were forces that have resisted.
So these are all themes that I think people consider to be new, but they're not. They have been a consistent part of the American narrative. And, we still have unresolved issues — we still have family business to work out.
On why voter mobilization efforts are important to Ramirez-Herrera
When people don't know their power, they can't really create the change that we want to see.
Ramirez-Herrera: I can't exercise the right to vote. But I also know the power of storytelling, and the power of mobilizing my own community. As we know, the Latino and Hispanic community is one of the fastest-growing minority populations here in the U.S. And so many times, from personal experience — I have two brothers who are American citizens — and so empowering them to know that even though my parents haven't had the right to vote or myself, teaching others is a powerful tool. Especially when you can educate your community, when you can educate other folks to step up and to push, and to use their power to change what's going on. Because a lot of times when people don't know their power, they can't really create the change that we want to see. And so that's been a really big push that, you know, not just myself, but so many members of my community, other young DREAMers, we all participate in pushing those who can vote in our Latino and Hispanic communities to exercise that right.
On why Rattley decided to call her series 'Unladylike' and the story of Bessie Coleman
Rattley: I think that what we're looking at is the idea of women who were bound by principle, and who were leading by courage. And (who) didn't feel constrained by the dominant ethos, or the standards of what was so-called "normalcy" for the behavior of women, and decided to step out.
I mean, the first film we did was about Bessie Coleman, who's from Arlington, Texas. Both of her parents were sharecroppers; she picked cotton. And then decided — decided! — hearing about women in Europe who flew, decided that she was going to raise money and get on a steamer, and go to Paris to learn how to fly.
So I'm asking her biographer. "You have to explain, if you can, to me — how did she go from picking cotton to flying? How did she do that?" And the way Bessie Coleman described it is, while she was picking cotton, she was looking up and watching birds.
And so to me, that's just the story of women ... who can see beyond the constraints of their circumstances. And if that means being characterized as being so-called "unladylike," so be it! Because that's the only way change is going to happen.
On how to move these stories to the forefront of history
Ramirez-Herrera: We need to first and foremost listen. And I think that the most important thing is to have an open heart, to have open ears, and to have the courage to ourselves, like, share our stories, right? I think it's so important that as human beings, we are more open to listening to other people that don't look like us. And as human beings, we should also be open enough to share our own stories.
I feel like sometimes, so many people hold back from showing up in the world, from sharing their story, from pursuing the things that they want to live out. You don't always have to be an intellectual. You don't have to have, like, all the money in the world. You don't have to be like everybody else. You just have to show up with your whole self, with open ears, with an open heart, and with open eyes, and listen to each other.
And when you have the opportunity to bring other stories to the forefront, do it! Do it. And, you know, shine them as big as you can. Use YouTube, use TikTok, use Twitter, use Facebook, use Vimeo like we're using right now. But just put it out there. We all have the power in our hands now; technology has evolved so much, (and) stories can be put out there. We can tell our own story, we can tell our neighbor's story, we can tell the story of the woman across the street — we all have that power. We just have to have the courage, and tenacity and resilience and action — just go out there and just tell your story, and tell other stories.
You don't have to be like everybody else. You just have to show up with your whole self, with open ears, with an open heart, and with open eyes, and listen to each other.
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