Editor’s note: This story is one of a series exploring the significance of the 19th Amendment to Illinois’ women leaders, during the week of its 100th birthday.
This week marks the 100th anniversary that the 19th Amendment — which gave citizens the right to vote, regardless of sex — was added to the Constitution.
Women in Illinois started organizing, protesting and agitating for the right to vote in the mid-1800s — yet it took almost a century to reach Wednesday’s anniversary, known as Women’s Equality Day.
It’s important to note the movement to allow women to vote is complex, and not everyone who fought for the right received equal representation — or credit. Black women and women of color in particular would fight for this right for years to come, due to widespread voter discrimination.
Yet the constitutional amendment was a major shift in women’s involvement in politics. It also built on and paved the way for other equality movements, including the labor, civil rights and LGBTQ rights movements.
Now, 100 years later, we wanted to know: What is the lasting impact of women being able to vote?
We asked women in Illinois politics how they’re marking the occasion and what challenges are still ahead for women. We also asked them to name another woman who inspires them as public servants. We followed up with their choices to share their thoughts and point us to other inspiring women. Each day this week, we’ll share an interview with the next link in the “inspiration chain.”
Today we’re talking to state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, nominated by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly. Gordon-Booth represents the 92nd District. She was also the youngest woman and the first African American woman from central Illinois to serve as assistant majority leader for the state Democratic Party. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the 19th Amendment mean to you?
I am very clear that had it not been for the 19th Amendment, I would not be where I am today. I would not have had the ability to work on the policies that I’ve been able to work on and make the impact that I’ve been able to have on the state, let alone my community.
So I am very grateful to the movement for the work that was for the suffrage movement and the work that was done to give women the ability to have this kind of impact in elections and in politics and the right to vote.
You don’t have to look too far back in history to see that the promise of America is vast and it’s great. And it is. The promise is beautiful, but we have to do a lot of work to live up to her promises. That detail is an important detail, not because we want to put necessarily a stain on that moment. Even when we have great and profound moments, sometimes we still fall short as it relates to equity.
I am grateful for all of the women’s shoulders that I stand on, Black and white, that allow me to comfortably and unabashedly fight for that equity every day and all the things that I do.
What would you say is the work that still needs to be done in the fight for gender equality in politics?
The fact that I live and represent a town that has never had a woman or a person of color as a mayor … there are certainly issues that we have to work on, and they aren’t all policy. The hardest work isn’t the policy work. Some of the hardest work that we have to do as a people, as a society, is to work within ourselves — to do some real serious soul searching about who we are and what we are and what we believe.
I’m talking to the men out there: The women that you love dearly … what is it that prevents women who are clearly so capable of serving in those leadership roles from being able to do so?
And what’s the next great civil rights barrier to overcome?
I think it’s right in front of our faces. I think that we have to deal with the ugly side of racism [in] our country. I think that until we are able to truly acknowledge the pain of what racism has done to this country … we’re going to have issues for a long time. And again, the promise of America is so profound and so beautiful. I would hate for us to just remain stagnant in this space for another day, another month, another year.
You’ve brought up your age several times. Are there specific issues that younger women face in politics?
We often deal with the issues [like] any other woman that is climbing her ladder: How do you go into those rooms that are still often very dominated by men and bring forth your issues and maybe sometimes not be taken seriously? How do you internalize that? Do you internalize that in a way in which you decide to no longer work on the issues? Do you just get mad or do you go back to the drawing board, reconfigure another strategy and come right back?
And if … you decide you want to start a family and you have children, that oftentimes becomes a challenge for women. When I was pregnant with my daughter while in the General Assembly, you would be blown away by the amount of men that asked me when was I resigning. … I was one of the first women to just open that door and say, “You know what? Yes, I am a legislator, but I’m also a wife and I’m a mother. And I’m going to bring my child to work.”
Who continues to inspire you today?
I’m inspired by us, by so many women. But who I’m going to lean into is Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. She is someone who is uniquely made for this moment in time that we are living in her life.
I believe that prosecutors should see not only that the family that has been harmed, but I believe that prosecutors should also see the defendant, because that has a significant impact on how they see this community.
I’m so incredibly inspired by her fight and willingness to unabashedly fight for communities that need a voice like hers.
Listen to WBEZ each afternoon to hear more from Gordon-Booth and other women leaders about the 19th Amendment anniversary. Read Robin Kelly’s interview.
Mary Hall produced the online version of this story. Follow her @hall_marye. Mariah Woelfel produced the audio version of this story. Follow her at @MariahWoelfel. Paula Friedrich is WBEZ’s interactive producer. Follow her at @pauliebe.