Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage

Jun 3, 2019 13 min read

Commentary By

Kelsey Bolar @kelseyjharkness

Senior Contributor, The Daily Signal

Lauren Evans

Director, Digital Productions

The Hon. Kay Coles James @KayColesJames

Emeritus Trustee since 2022

Hulton Archive/Getty Images Plus

Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James joined a special episode of The Daily Signal's “Problematic Women” podcast to talk about the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.

President Donald Trump appointed James to the bipartisan commission formed to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s right to vote. In this week’s podcast, we discuss the history of the movement, what “suffrage” really means, and the importance of celebrating this historic event.

This is a lightly-edited transcript.

Lauren Evans: Mrs. James, so why are we talking about [the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission] now?

Kay Coles James: Well, you know, I was so honored when President Trump asked me to be his representative to the women’s suffrage commission.

It was a commission that was established by Congress to bring a bipartisan group of women together to plan how we’re going to educate and to celebrate women having the right to vote in our country. It will be the 100th year, centennial, this celebration year.

Having joined that commission, I was honored that this bipartisan group asked if I would, in fact, chair this commission.

Given the importance of this issue, the significance of it—what it means to me as an American and as a woman in this wonderful country—it is indeed an honor.

And serving beside and along with some folks who I just admire and respect so much, your audience may know some of the names—Penny Nance from Concerned Women For America; Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads up that fabulous pro-life group; Cleta Mitchell, who is an attorney in our country, second to none.

But also on the other side of the aisle as well, and I think she is an absolute icon, and every woman in this country ought to know Sen. [Barbara] Mikulski and the incredible work she has done in the United States Senate, as one of, if not the longest serving woman in the United States Senate.

And so she is the vice chair of the commission and we considered it absolutely important to demonstrate to this country and to some of the guys in this town what it looks like when we come together as women across partisan lines to do something of great importance and great significance.

So I have a learned a great deal from her. We have stormed a hill together and are working side by side every day to make sure that if anyone repeats that little prank, that the women in this country will know what the women’s suffrage movement is and some of the heroes that paved the way for us to have the opportunity to vote.

Kelsey Bolar: Yeah. Before we get into the significance of this 100-year anniversary, I do want to mention the commission is composed of 14 members, appointed by the president, as you had the honor.

[These include] the speaker of the House, the minority leader of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, the minority of the Senate, the librarian of Congress, the archivist of the United States, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, and the director of the National Park Service.

So, it really does feature a mix of different ideological perspectives and in this time, when our country is unfortunately so divided, do you think that it is possible that we could unite around the celebration around this monumental event?

James: Not only can we, but we will. And our job is to encourage that kind of bipartisan work and support across the country so we will be doing it at the national level and providing opportunities at the state level to celebrate, as well.

As each state ratified originally, we’re hoping that those states will come on board with their own individual celebrations.

And, I forgot to mention, a very important woman in all of this who is the executive director, Rebecca Kleefisch, and some of our listeners may remember her. She ran for lieutenant governor in the state of Wisconsin with Scott Walker and she is giving her time and talent now to chair this very important commission.

Evans: We’d love for you to walk us back through history and share what women today should know about the suffragettes and who some of the most prominent ones that stick out to you are?

James: Well, first of all, they should know it was a very long and hard slug. And I think that’s important to remember because today’s young people sometimes think we should have instant gratification. 

But, just to give you a few dates, a lot of people think that the real beginning happened in 1848 in Seneca Falls. And that’s in New York and that’s the location of the first [regional] women’s rights convention. And one very important woman wrote the Declaration of Sentiments with the help of many of the women who were there at that convention: Elizabeth [Cady] Stanton.

I think probably the next data of note was 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was the site of the first National Women’s Rights Convention. And it was a stellar lineup of individuals who actually participated there, from Frederick Douglass to Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth—it was a real strong alliance.

I think it’s also important to note that the alliance between the abolitionists in this country and the suffragists was so, so important in making it happen.

Of course, with the Civil War, things sort of died down a little bit as women turned their attention toward the war effort.

In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association. It was an organization that was dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all, regardless of gender or race. 

However, there was a little bit of an upset in the movement and Frederick Douglass, who had been such a great supporter and worked hand-in-hand with these two women.

We think intersectionality is a new thing, but, boy, you begin to see this way back then in this battle because Frederick Douglass was so concerned that he thought that the leaders in the suffragist movement were taking resources from racists and there was some back and forth about what should come first.

Should women gain the right to vote first or should blacks in America gain the right to vote first? And there was a little bit of conflict as they worked through some of those issues.

But I think what’s important for today, if we fast forward a little bit, is to recognize that when the Congress actually passed the 19th Amendment and then it went out to be ratified by the various states, it took a very long time for this to all unfold.

And I think those of us who came through with the television and where all problems were resolved in 30 minutes with time for commercials, to recognize that sometimes it can take a very, very long time to change the culture, to change the processes, and to really win the rights we so desperately want.

Evans: What strategy did the suffragettes use to employ that change?

James: Well, you know, it’s really interesting given the strategies people use today. But they used everything.

Bolar: I heard something about a hunger strike.

James: Yeah, yeah. I would like to think that I would’ve been tough enough to go along with the hunger strike, but I’m not real sure. So they used a hunger strike, and there was tension about whether or not these should be national efforts or state-by-state.

But at the national level, they did picketing, they did demonstrations, they did hunger strikes, and women were determined to use the power that they had in the home to influence their husbands as well to get on board with the movement. 

Now, you may notice—and I think it’s worthy of note—that I tend to use the term “suffragist” instead of “suffragettes.” And I don’t know if you know that there is significance behind that.

“The suffragettes” was a derogatory term that came out of England, and when you think about women’s suffrage, they tried to demean women by saying, “Oh, you cute little suffragettes, aren’t you.”

So they wanted to minimize and demean and it was a derogatory term. So American women tended to use and prefer the term “suffragist.” So we just have to be very careful with our language and make sure we don’t use the derogatory term.

Bolar: Tricky. You mentioned Susan B. Anthony earlier. She’s a very interesting figure to me because most people have actually heard of her name today because of the amazing pro-life group that The Heritage Foundation works with from time to time.

So Susan B. Anthony is known as a pro-life figure today, but she did play such an important role in leading this movement to get women the right to vote.

Do you think that left-leaning women today have a difficult time reckoning with the fact that some of the most important women who fought for and gained women’s rights throughout history, were, dare I say, pro-life?

James: You know, I think it’s a great lesson for them. And I only wish that we as women in today’s culture could come together around issues that are important across party and ideological lines. I see less of that. 

But I happen to know that there are women who are feminist, who feel strongly about women’s rights, who are profoundly pro-life. And, you know, there’s even an organization called Feminists for Life and that’s so difficult for some on the left to wrap their heads around, but that’s always been true. 

And I happen to believe that to be pro-life is probably one of the most feminist positions you can take because I say that I refuse to change anything about who I am, to be equal to any man. I bear children, and I don’t need to change that, or to mutilate my body, or to do anything to be equal. And I think that’s a very strong feminist position.

Bolar: Absolutely, I agree with you. And I have to say, I’ve personally noticed what I’ve been calling a “revisionist history” when it comes to pro-life women’s roles in securing women’s rights throughout history.

Especially with conversations surrounding some of the abortion laws that are circulating throughout the states right now, I’ve seen a lot of women tell me you can’t be pro-life and be a feminist.

They constantly want to box us out of the conversation, not just surrounding the life issue but the “Me Too” issue as well, battling sexual assault and so forth.

My question for you is, what more can we do as conservative women to make it known that not only do we want to be a part of the solution now, but we were a part of the solution throughout history?

James: That’s exactly right. What more can we do? I think as women, we have learned that one of the most empowering things we have are our voices and we have to make sure that our voices are heard.

I know many pro-life, conservative, Evangelical, Republican women, you name it all, who’ve had their own “Me Too” moments. And our voices need to be heard on that issue as well.

I know many conservative women who have a lot to say about discrimination that they’ve faced in the workforce and I think it would be strategic and smart of the women on the left to understand that when they cut out our voices from the issues that are important to us that what they’re doing is missing an entire element that could help get these issues over the finish line. We have influence and voices and we can promote these issues as well.

That’s one of the things that I think is so significant and not to be overlooked about this particular commission. We have women on that commission from a broad political perspective and who have differing opinions on many of the issues that are at the forefront of the political debate today.

But we have come together in solidarity on this issue. So we’re really hoping that this particular commission can be a role model going forward of how we can come together as Americans on issues that are important to us.

Evans: Earlier this year, Google decided to create an advisory council that would help guide the company in the responsible development of artificial intelligence and asked you, Mrs. James, to join.

After your involvement was announced, Google employees started a petition to have you removed from the panel because of your stance on some social issues.

The employees were successful, Google removed you, and effectively silenced your voice due to political disagreement.

James: Well, sure. That was so unfortunate. You know, anyone who listens to what’s going on in the news today knows that we have some major issues with many of the social platforms.

And as conservatives, we feel that our voices, very often on those platforms, are silenced, are rejected, or deleted, and so I thought it was significant that Google reached out and said, “We’d like to hear your perspective as we deal with some of the complex issues surrounding artificial intelligence.”

And so, I was shocked at the backlash from many of their employees. But, you know, we started the show talking about the ignorance surrounding just the term “suffrage” and it occurs to me that in this particular issue with Google, there was so much ignorance because the employees, some 2,000-plus who signed the petition that said I should not be involved, had a caricature of who this person, Kay Coles James, is that bared no resemblance to reality.

They just didn’t do their homework. And probably my favorite characterization was when they called me a white nationalist. Well, you know, a slight Google search would have turned up that I am actually African-American and I laughed about it and said, “Well, I’m glad I’m finally outed. I don’t have to get up every day and put this black face on.” 

I mean, how silly can you possibly be? But the other terms were just as insulting and just as ill-informed that I am anti-immigration. That says you do not really want to do your homework and understand what the real positions of conservatives are.

To say that you’re anti-gay, I mean that is absolutely ridiculous. And I think that they missed out on an opportunity to have a conversation and dialogue with someone who may have a different perspective. 

And I didn’t necessarily think they would end up agreeing with my perspective, but, boy, could we have had interesting conversations and could we have understood each other better and perhaps reached consensus on some very important issues.

Evans: Mrs. James, you handled it with such toughness, but also grace. And I think a lot of our listeners find themselves in similar positions, maybe not so high-profile, but they might be the only conservative on their college campus, or maybe they’re a young professional and they’re the only conservative in their peer group.

What is your advice to these young women?

James: I would say, one of the best gifts that we can give ourselves, as women, is to learn to be comfortable in our own skin. “I am who I am.”

And one of the best pieces of advice that I got when I got to Washington was keep the group of people whose opinions you care about really small—my family, my husband, my friends, my church, you know. And as long as I stay true to who I am, all the attacks that come just bounce off.

When they were describing that person, it was humorous to me because I knew that just wasn’t who I was. And so, to be able to go to bed every night knowing you are faithful to who you are, to your family, to your God, puts you in a position of absolute confidence.

And I think even biblically, it talks about the peace that passes all understanding. I sleep really well at night unless my husband, my family, are upset over something and I value their opinions that I want to have a conversation and straighten it out. Short of that, you can say almost anything you want and it really doesn’t matter. And I think that’s one of the best gifts that we can give ourselves, to be confident in who we are.

Bolar: Getting back to the reason we’re having you on the podcast today, we’re very grateful that through this commission, you’re having a very different experience than you did with Google.

So, on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment finally became part of the U.S. Constitution. It states that “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.”

Is that the end of the story?

James: It never is the end of the story. Just because the 19th Amendment was passed, didn’t mean that every state would ratify it. There was still a lot in the culture that needed to change.

There’s always debates in political circles, which comes first, the cultural change or the political change, or does the political change drive the culture? And I don’t think it’s either, I think it’s both. 

And so it was many years before men really let it sink into their souls that women had a right to be in the political process and express their views.

And I think we again so desperately want to see change happen, and we want to see it happen quickly, that we don’t understand that sometimes it takes years and years and years.

And sometimes when we’re involved in those kinds of struggles and debates and battles, we don’t live to see it fully come to fruition. So, patience, patience, patience.

Evans: Mrs. James, can you let our listeners know how they can get involved with the commission?

James: Well, you can find us on the web, dare say it again: Google the women’s suffrage commission, it’s actually called the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.

And there they will find lots of help and tool kits that give suggestions for what they can do at the state level and for what national programs and projects they can get involved in.

Evans: Well, thank you so much for joining us. You are truly an inspiration to all of us Problematic Women. 

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal