This year commemorates the 98th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. While we join in celebrating the federal government’s recognition that gender should not prohibit an individual from participating in the hallmark of democracy, we cannot help but shrug at the celebration of a day where Black people were still facing violence and intimidation for attempting to vote.
In the same way Frederick Douglass questioned the commemoration of the 4th of July, we ask, what to a Black girl is Women’s Equality Day? When we reflect on the long battle to get the 19th Amendment ratified, we cannot ignore the fact that the movement was largely led by racist white women. To this day, Black women’s access to political power is in peril. Black voters still face aggressive attacks on hard-fought voting rights. Some jurisdictions are using intimidation or threats to accessibility in order to discourage Black people from voting. This year, Crystal Mason, a Black woman in Fort Worth, Texas was prosecuted for “voter fraud” for voting in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release. Another Black woman, Whitney Brown, one of the “Alamance 12” was also prosecuted in North Carolina for voting while she was on probation, although she was never informed that she was not eligible to vote. Randolph County, Georgia (a predominantly Black county, which previously was monitored to prevent race based voter discrimination under Voting Rights Act) recently attempted to close almost three fourths of their polling places, making it even harder for Black people to take advantage of their hard fought right to vote.
Despite the constant attacks on the political engagement of Black women in particular, we remain hopeful because of the progressive women of color, queer women, Muslim women, and women who have been directly impacted by police violence, who have decided to engage in electoral politics. Black women have continued to show up, election after election and demanded that their communities be heard. According to the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights, “Black women. . . surpassed all other race and gender subgroups in voter turnout in 2008 and 2012.” Despite their consistent participation in electoral politics, Black women face enormous barriers to elected office; there has never had a Black woman governor, and there are still states that have never even had a Black woman in their statewide legislature.
Across the country, Black girls and girls of color are organizing and responding to the issues that are important to them. Black girls have been reclaiming spaces which had previously been sites of gender based violence, and doing radical healing work in public spaces. While we hold that necessary work up, we simultaneously must push elected officials to be responsive to — and reflective of — the communities that they serve. Voting is one of the most direct ways to demand their responsiveness. Yet, millennials and generation x-ers are notorious for not participating in the electoral process. In the 2014 midterm elections, less than quarter of millennials came out to vote. If the upcoming midterm elections follow that trend, elected officials may continue to ignore the demands of younger folks in their districts. This is one of the reasons we will continue the work of opening opportunities for young people to see themselves as important, and valuable parts of democratic processes, and help them understand that their participation is powerful.
One successful way to engage young people has been to offer culturally relevant school curricula, reflective of stories of the valiant girls and women of color who fought to make the U.S. government hear their voices through political processes. As younger people develop a better understanding of the brave work that has been done to create opportunity for them, it can invigorate a needed excitement around political engagement. Women’s Equality Day celebrations should reflect the victory of women’s right to vote, but also honor the legacy of the women who fought to expand and maintain enfranchisement for all people, and propel a movement to protect the enfranchisement of people of color.
At Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) we are engaging girls through participatory governance processes which remove barriers that so often prevent the people who are most harmed by political decisions, from participating. We are helping young people have access to the gatekeepers, the elected officials who either directly or indirectly, decide what their schools teach, what resources are allocated for services girls need in schools, like menstrual hygiene products, or drinking fountains. Perhaps this is what we can celebrate on Women’s Equality Day, the potential for girls and TGNC youth of color to shape electoral politics and the decisions that are made in their communities. This means bringing young people to the table when City Council discusses issues like police violence, support for pregnant and parenting students, and school dress codes.
This year, we hope you will join GGE as we celebrate women’s suffrage for Black women, all women of color, for non-binary people, and for all the people pushed to margins by institutional structures, by lifting them up and amplifying their voices at every level of government.