May 20, 2018
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Great expectations for women still unrealized

By Amy Watson Saxton, Special to the BDN

Marie Ruoff Byrum of Missouri, long dead, has her own Facebook page. Two people “like” it. But there are no photos, very little information and no postings — perhaps because she is a mere footnote to history.

On August 31,1920, five days after the 19th Amendment was signed into law, this Hannibal, Missouri woman voted in a special election to the fill the seat of an alderman who had resigned.

It was 7 a.m. and pouring rain when Mrs. Byrum arrived at the polls. With her ballot she became the first woman to vote in Missouri and the United States under the Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The wording of the amendment is simple: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” But the passage was tortuous.

It took 52 years for the amendment to be ratified and when it got down to the wire, a 24-year-old legislator in Nashville, Tenn. who was leaning against it — Harry Burn — listened to his mother and cast the decisive “yea” vote which allowed the clause to become the 19th Amendment. (Tennessee was the 36th and deciding state to ratify, giving the amendment the necessary approval of three-fourths of the states.)

And so on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law and women could vote in the fall elections.

So what were Mrs. Burn’s expectations when she insisted her son change his vote from nay to yea? And what was Mrs. Byrum thinking about when she stood in line to exercise the franchise in her first election? If these two women hoped that their newly acquired voting rights would lead to women holding elective office they already had a role model.

Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives four years before the Suffrage Amendment became law because Montana allowed women to vote. But overall their early choices at the polls were dominated by a male field. The first president they could vote for was Warren G. Harding. The second was Calvin Coolidge, the third was Herbert Hoover.

Slowly things began to change. In Maine three years later, Dora B. Pinkham of Fort Kent became the first female to be elected to the Legislature. By the time Women’s Equality Day was established in 1971, the world was a different place and women weren’t just voting but more routinely running for office.

Today women turn out to vote in greater numbers than men and can often be a decisive bloc in an election yet women do not run for office nearly as often as men do.

The statistics are sobering: the U.S. ranks 84th in the world for women in elected office, behind Mexico, China and Pakistan. Women make up just 17 percent of Congress. Maine is doing a bit better in terms of women’s representation, ranking 13th in the nation in terms of women in elected office in state legislature. Yet despite our two female U.S. Senators and one female member of Congress, Maine has yet to elect a woman governor.

The results of the election last November weren’t good for women either. Female representation in Congress decreased for the first time in the past three decades and we lost our first woman Speaker of the House. Moreover, there is still public discussion of which gender is better suited for politics.

If Mrs. Byrum and Mrs. Burn were around today they would probably observe that woman have come a long way in 91 years. Yet ironically, Jeanette Rankin was the last woman to be elected to Congress from Montana and it took 73 years after Dora Pinkham was elected to the Legislature for Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro to assume a leadership position as Speaker of the House in 1996.

Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY, 1971-1976) who instituted Women’s Equality Day observed, “They used to give us a day — it was called International Women’s Day. In 1975 they gave us a year, the Year of the Woman. Then from 1975 to 1985 they gave us a decade, the Decade of the Woman. I said at the time, who knows, if we behave they may let us into the whole thing. Well, we didn’t behave and here we are.”

Yes, here we are and hopefully women will use the history of the 19th Amendment to point the way forward to increased representation in the political sphere.

Amy Watson Saxton of Harpswell is board chairwoman of Emerge Maine, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office.

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