Editor’s note: This story is one of a five-part 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 U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, nominated by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Kelly has represented the 2nd Congressional District since 2013 and previously served in the Illinois House of Representatives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the 19th Amendment mean to you?
I think about the struggle those women and generations of women put into the 19th Amendment coming to be. Just their tenacity and how especially back then, women were looked at as not as strong as men. And those women … pushed and pushed and pushed until the 19th Amendment was law.
But then the other side of me, as a Black woman … I don’t jump up and down maybe like other people, because I know that it wasn’t really about us women of color.
But I still respect what they did and what they were able to accomplish. And if they didn’t accomplish that, then [the Civil Rights Acts of] 1964 and 1965 might’ve been harder.
What would you say the past 100 years have meant for women and Black women in politics in particular? Why do you think it’s important that women and other diverse groups have a right to vote?
A rough, slow haul.
People died for people to have the right to vote. … I know people think, “Oh, my one vote doesn’t matter,” but I know races where people have won by five votes. This is your voice.
We’re in a moment that the first Black woman has been nominated on a major ticket. What does that mean to you?
It’s monumental. It’s historic. It’s about time. It gives me hope. When you look at other countries, there have been Black women who have been running the county. But when you look at ours, it’s taken us so long to have someone Black who’s female as vice president.
[The U.S.] is progressive, but we hold onto old ways also. Change is hard. If you’re the person that’s been in power and running the show, you want to stay in power and run the show.
What will it take to have full gender equality in politics? What are some of the challenges even today to this?
The more we’re there, the more people see it’s not novel, we won’t say, “the first, the first.” We won’t have to keep saying it — it’ll just be the way it is.
If people are afraid or skeptical of people who are different, then that holds back everybody. We miss out on someone’s gifts and talents, intelligence. … We should want it to be diverse, because we’re a diverse country and we should want as many voices as possible.
Who inspires you in politics today?
[State] Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth — a true leader that really, really cares about her community. That’s inspirational to me. … She’s much younger than the people coming up; that makes me think we are going to be OK.
Listen to WBEZ each afternoon to hear more from Kelly and other women leaders about the 19th Amendment anniversary. Read Lori Lightfoot’s interview. And come back tomorrow to read state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth’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.