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 Mayor Lori Lightfoot, nominated by Illinois state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit. Lightfoot is city’s first Black female and openly gay woman to be elected to the office. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the 19th Amendment mean to you?
While it’s an important milestone … it’s bittersweet, because a promise of that amendment wasn’t realized for women of color, and particularly Black women, until decades later because of ongoing aggressive actions on the part of many states across our nation to deny people of color the true right to vote.
While I think there’s a lot to celebrate, I think we also have to recognize our history, which is that the fight continued long after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Suffrage fighters fought for what was right at a time when it wasn’t popular. What similarities do you see between women suffragettes and the protesters taking to the streets right now, fighting for racial justice?
Whenever you are going against conventional norms, you have to have courage and tenacity to make sure that your voices are heard. … I think the challenge of our time that we’re experiencing right now is in the last four years in particular, there’s a level of toxicity that is really dominating in many instances of the public debate.
Do you think that we will look back on today’s protests decades from now and see those differently?
With the passage of time, we always look back with a different lens. Assembly of our free speech is what makes us different than every other country in the world. We’ve got to jealously guard that right, and protect people who want to exercise it, no matter what they’re saying, no matter whether we agree with it or not. We have to make sure that the First Amendment right of speech and assembly is real.
Is there a law that you can point to that you think represents women’s influence in government today?
I don’t think it would make sense to single out one particular law because women … have been so instrumental in the passage of virtually every meaningful law. That not only affects us here in the United States, but … we’ve had tremendous influence on foreign policy as well, on everything from voting rights to Americans with Disabilities Act and, more recently, laws that are intended to protect women against assault, gun violence legislation.
That’s why it’s so important that women have a seat at the table, both as elected officials, but also as advocates. We have to and we do shape the course of our history here in the city, in our states and, of course, in our nation and our world.
Why do you think it’s important that women and other diverse groups have a right to vote?
It’s really the promise of our democracy. To be able to cast your vote for our representatives is the most purest, most powerful form of democracy that we have. We can’t truly affect the trajectory of our own lives, let alone the lives of people who can’t advocate for themselves, if we don’t vote.
Who inspires you in politics today?
Congresswoman Robin Kelly. She is not a flashy person. She doesn’t try to grab the headlines that many others may have. She’s effective. She works collaboratively with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle. … She is someone that I think really embodies public service at its best.
Listen to WBEZ each afternoon to hear more from Lightfoot and other women leaders about the 19th Amendment anniversary. Read Stephanie Kifowit’s interview. And come back tomorrow to read U.S. Rep. 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.