HOLDING PUBLIC OFFICE: Right to Vote Does Not Mean Level Playing Field for Women on Ballots

Emily Kerr
The Daily Record

A woman has yet to hold America’s highest elected office.

Voters rejected Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2016, a campaign that followed the nation’s historic decision in 2008 to elect its first black president – an echo of women earning the right to vote only after black men successfully fought for franchise.

Some countries still don’t let women vote. The World Bank found last year that women in half the countries in the world lack equal property rights.

This year, the United States is celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which established that women have the right to vote, as activists continue to call for the addition of the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution and electing more women into public office.

A hundred years after women secured the right to vote, they still face an uneven playing field in politics, particularly women of color.

This year, Nebraska Democrats have three women seeking to challenge incumbent Rep. Don Bacon in the 2nd Congressional district. Each of the candidates – Kara Eastman, Ann Ashford and Gladys Harrison – spoke to The Daily Record about their experience as candidates.

Eastman says she feels the need to be more prepared than anyone in the room, especially her male counterparts. 

“We’re competing at a different level,” she said. “We need to understand all of the nuances it takes to run for office.”

Ashford says women are expected to work twice as hard, but voters shouldn’t base support for a candidate on gender.

“I look forward to at some point being this post-sexist, post-racist, post all-the-‘ists’ society where we don’t have to think about this anymore,” she said.

Harrison says previous generations have helped pave the way, but she’s found her gender isn’t the obstacle she has to overcome.

“I haven’t felt push back because I’m a woman,” Harrison said. “My greatest challenge in running for office in 2020 in Nebraska has been that I’m not a wealthy person and that I’m a person of color.”

There’s still plenty of work to be done, Harrison said, but women are continuing to fight for equality and to achieve a better way of life.

“When you hold back women, you lose 50% of how good a society can be,” she said. “If you look across the world at countries where men and women have the opportunities to be in leadership. Those are the countries that thrive economically, socially and mentally.”

“Any woman who does anything in a leadership role is a role model for all other women, including other countries,” Ashford said. “We have to ensure that every woman across the globe is valued and given her equal due.”

America’s political legacy has been dominated by men, which has resulted in the current significant underrepresentation of women in Congress, Eastman said.

“It demonstrates the importance of women in leadership roles everywhere and how, left to their own devices, men will tend to leave women out or even go to extremes to keep women from being in leadership positions,” Eastman said.

Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson was one of 100 women who accompanied the women’s suffrage float in period dress in the 131st Rose Parade.

“Generations that came after and generations to come will forever be indebted to the courageous women who fought for each one of us,” said Borgeson, a Republican who is serving as president of the National Association of Counties.

Some people wanted women to remain in the background, not on an equal footing, Borgeson said. Even today, she said male candidates for office aren’t asked the same questions – inquiries about their clothes or hair, for example, or how they care for their children.

“I believe we have come a long way, but I still see women being treated differently than our male counterparts,” Borgeson said.

The idea of women voting was controversial, if not subversive, when activists first called the Women’s Right Convention in 1848.

The National Woman Suffrage Association began to grow a movement, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 that the suffragist movement amped up its efforts.

In 1887, the first women’s suffrage bill was introduced, but it failed on the Senate floor. The battle moved to the states, where by 1910, many states were allowing women to vote. But the movement marginalized and excluded women of color, who were pushed away in an effort to appeal to legislators who were more conformable with the idea of white women voting.

Alisha Shelton, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and only the second black woman to run for the office in Nebraska, said that many African American women were injured in a women’s suffrage parade in 1913 on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

“We were only allowed to walk in the back of the parade,” Shelton said, adding that her and others’ ancestors united and worked together to secure their rights. “We owe them, and we owe our future generation, to continue to stay the course and to work on that path, because many made this their life’s mission.”

Wilson eventually backed women’s suffrage as a war measure, after women played a vital role in World War I. The 19th Amendment, as written by Susan B. Anthony, was adopted on Aug. 26, 1920. But Shelton said it wasn’t until after Jim Crow laws began to be struck down in the 1960s that many women of color really could exercise their constitutional rights.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” Shelton said. “Although we had this 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote in 1920, and we had men that got the vote with the 15th Amendment, it really took until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act for us to be able to vote.”


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