Before Aug. 26, 1920, a woman’s inability to vote kept her from weighing in on political issues and attaining positions of power. For African-American women in the South the sense of powerlessness was even more suffocating as they were denied the right to vote because of their race and sex.
“Not just as women but also as African-Americans it was a huge struggle to get the right to vote and that alone should tell you there’s some power to it,” said Gladys Edmunds, entrepreneur and author. “I tend to think that anytime we can exercise our voices in anyway, it helps us collectively. We have to continue to get more and more people voting and especially our young women.”
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that gave women the right to vote. To celebrate the occasion women today can reflect on the pioneers who fought for their suffrage and later went on to fight for civil rights, as well as how the amendment has helped shape today’s society.
“For every year that we celebrate, women also must empower themselves more and more. That means women have to show up to vote they have to set an agenda and conditions for candidates and they have to hold people’s feet to the fire,” said Valerie McDonald Roberts, a former city councilwoman who was the first African-American woman to hold the position. “With that celebration there comes more work to do, getting stronger, making our voice stronger.”
Though several women in Pittsburgh have held leadership positions in local government, they agree that city politics are still very much male dominated with women’s voices carrying less weight.
“Politics is hardball. I’m there and it is always been male dominated. Women have to be ready to be able to punish. The problem I see with women is we don’t hold that stick enough. We have to be ready and willing to lead,” Roberts said. “We have moved in that direction and we’re doing it more and more. It’s not just showing up and doing what someone else tells you to, it’s showing up with your own mind.”
“I often said when I was serving as an elected official, with voting and politics it’s just brutal for women. It’s hard to get a lot of respect. If you’re a strong woman you’re viewed as being aggressive,” said former District 6 City Councilwoman Tonya Payne. “When I served on council you had predominantly men. When they’re in power they seem to not legislate the way women do. They’re interested in climbing to power whereas women are interested in improving the schools and crime. We don’t see it more as a career, we see it as a way to build the community.”
In celebration of their own anniversary, local members of the League of Women Voters, who saw their founding on the same day the voting rights amendment became law, joined with the Women and Girls Foundation and other Pittsburgh women in Mellon Park Aug. 26.
In her words at the Women’s Equality Day Event, well known voting rights advocate Celeste Taylor focused on Ida Wells, an African-American journalist, newspaper editor and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
“A more contemporary writer described her as a serious badass. And well that’s how she was. She did not accept being told she had to sit in the back of the bus and she did it several years before (Rosa Parks) did. She figured out a way to march and she wasn’t going to be told that she couldn’t,” said Taylor. “Her courage and her commitment to self-determination, it’s a part of this struggle that is really hard to accept. There’s something about being that courageous and being that committed and understanding that the role of self-determination isn’t that you think you’re better than anyone, it’s how you affirm you own humanity.”