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.”
We started with former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who made history when she became the first Black woman to be elected to the Senate. She was also a U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, is a former federal prosecutor, and once ran for Chicago mayor. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What does the 19th Amendment mean to you?
It represents the first time that [women] were actually brought into the constitutional order of things. You cannot have justice if you cannot have access to the ballot.
What people don’t understand is the culture drives the politics, not the other way around. The fact that women have a hard time raising money, have a hard time being taken seriously, have a harder time being heard, their ideas embraced and adopted, is really a function of where society is.
Why is it that having women in politics is so important? How does it change policy?
It’s vital, because the whole idea of democracy is that you tap the population for ideas about how government should work. And if you start off with a narrow band of people whose ideas are being heard and paid attention to, then what you’re going to do is wind up with lopsided policies.
Women are everywhere on the spectrum in terms of [ideology]. But they do bring a different set of life experiences to bear on the policy question. They can reach a conclusion that doesn’t require, if you will, winners and losers. … And that serves everybody’s interests, because what you wind up with are policies that serve the interests of the entire population.
Is there a law in Illinois or nationally that you think represents women’s influence in government?
The Violence Against Women Act was part of the crime bill of 1993. And it has made a big difference in terms of the way that women are treated in the court system, or treated by police, or frankly treated by their partners.
What work do you think still needs to be done in the fight for gender equality in politics?
It’s been a steady march forward to equality. We haven’t gotten there yet. … Women still face barriers that men don’t. And largely because, again, these barriers tend to be cultural.
This next generation coming up … they start out with an expectation of equality. And because of those expectations, that’s going to give rise to societal change, I’m convinced.
Who inspires you in politics today?
[Illinois state Rep.] Stephanie Kifowit … really represents the future of women and politics and women in government.
Public service is not about the individual. It’s about ‘What are you doing for the community?’ And so if you find somebody who starts off with an interest in serving, not just an interest in self aggrandizement, I think that’s something we all have to celebrate and encourage.
Listen to WBEZ each afternoon to hear more from Braun and other women leaders about the 19th Amendment anniversary. And come back to WBEZ.org tomorrow to read Illinois state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit’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.