This month, while we celebrate the centennial of women getting the vote, it might be appropriate to put that progress into some perspective. Women have been involved in politics a long time, with and without the vote. Cleopatra had a little to do with Roman politics after the death of Julius Caesar. And Charlotte Corday marked her ballot with a kitchen knife.
Abigail Adams’ letters to and from her husband John inform us about women’s feelings and their influence on influential men in our Revolutionary era. The fight for women’s suffrage was very important. But we need to remember that before and during that long struggle, women who cared were doing what they could at home, and in their communities to influence policies and shape society.
It is also important that we put women’s suffrage into its broader context. It was not the right to vote that made Rosa Parks hold her seat on that Montgomery city bus. It was voting rights that sprang from the struggle her action was part of that made it possible for women like Maxine Waters and Andrea Ocasio-Cortez to gain office, five and more decades after women won the legal right to vote.
Rosa Parks was one of thousands of women who were not allowed to vote, but who devoted lifetimes to fighting for changes to improve their lives and the lives of their families and neighbors. Like Moses and Dr. King, knowing that they would not live to see the promised land, they labored on, to make that promised land better for the people who would reach it.
This month, we also mark the centennial of the death of Florence Nightingale. She was 90 years old when she died on August 13, 1920. Of those 90 years, she could vote in English elections for only the last two; the oppressive royal government had given women the vote two years earlier than our beacon of liberty. But Florence Nightingale didn’t need the vote to change the world.
In 1854, Nightingale took a team of nurses from England to the Crimean War, in the Black Sea (the war that gave us the Charge of the Light Brigade). When she arrived, it is reported that ten times more soldiers died in field hospitals than on the battlefield. Forty-two percent of the wounded in field hospitals died. When Nightingale’s team got to work, that percentage dropped to 2%.
Nightingale was not a doctor. She was a nurse who understood things like basic hygiene and diet. She introduced hand washing to British army hospitals in 1854! She introduce the concepts of cleaning in the hospitals and of giving the wounded decent, nutritious meals.
Neither the British military nor the war profiteers who made money by selling rancid meat and weevily flour to the army were enthusiastic about Nightingale’s demands for reforms. But she was also an early proponent of using the press to gain attention and build popular support for reforms. As hospital death rates plummeted, soldiers could be shipped home to families alive instead of as just remains. People responded.
Florence Nightingale believed that she, without the right to vote, but with clear thinking and public actions, could move the world toward a better place. Sadly, when the U.S. Civil War started shortly after the Crimean War ended, neither the U.S. nor the Confederate armies had adopted Nightingale’s ideas for keeping wounded troops alive.
Florence Nightingale had faith that her cause was right. She was a lifelong member of the Church of England, but also freely criticized the Church for its discriminatory practices. But she saw her nursing as work of faith. She understood Jesus’ lesson that faith without works is dead.
They organized. They worked to convince scared neighbors. They worked to get voters registered, and to protest when functionaries like Louis deJoy used office powers to block voting. They organized support for people who couldn’t get to demonstrations or polls.
In the years of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Freedom rides, and marches like the one on Selma, Rosa Parks and the thousands of women who gave their husbands, their children and themselves to the cause of civil rights for others, also acted from faith. They studied, planned, discussed, organized and supported each other in churches across the South. They knew that they could not rely on Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education or on the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They knew that no matter how much faith they had, their rights could only be protected and improved by working for them.
So they organized. They worked to convince scared neighbors. They worked to get voters registered, and to protest when functionaries like Louis deJoy used office powers to block voting. They organized support for people who couldn’t get to demonstrations or polls. Many, probably most, of them worked—long hours for low pay. They didn’t have time for esoteric concepts like inchoate rights for future people. At the end of long days of labor, they didn’t have the energy to organize and plan. But they made the time. They found the energy.
And we saw the results. Many of those women got their right to vote. Many voted. Governments improved. Tom Bradley would never have become Mayor of L.A. without the work of those women who didn’t have the time or energy. Stacey Abrams is the daughter of that movement, as are Kamala Harris and all the women of “The Squad,” and those joining The Squad this year.
We also saw the Republican Party fight back. Other women also gained from the right of women to vote. Women like Phyllis Schlafly and Laura Loomer and Marjorie Taylor Greene. For all of them, opposition to racial equal rights is the single motivating issue.
Republican governed states have moved aggressively to suppress non-white voting. After the Republican controlled U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it went on a couple of years later to praise gerrymandering and encourage it in every Republican governed state. States have closed polling places in minority neighborhoods and equipped remaining polling places with dysfunctional voting machines.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that segregated schools could never be equal. By the late 50s, white churchmen were setting up for-profit “segregation academies” promising to admit no non-whites, and also to refrain from teaching their students anything that disagreed with their parents’ beliefs—most notably, promising not to teach children to think on their own.
Today, we have an overtly, proudly racist president who is running a competitive race for re-election. Polls show that a large minority of voters support the president’s efforts to resegregate the nation. Polls also show that the people most likely to be hurt by the president’s assault on U.S. liberties and civil rights are the people least likely to vote in November. With social media and national attention paid to exciting demonstrations and marches, there is little enthusiasm for the kind of work that the women of the Civil Rights Movement put in. People don’t want to put in the effort of direct outreach, teaching and encouraging the fearful.
It’s harder today than in the 50s and 60s. No door-to-door canvassing. Face masks hiding sympathetic, supporting faces. And the black churches that once provided centers for activism have too often learned from the white, corporate churches to put profits ahead of prophets.
But this year’s elections, at both the national and the local levels, will be one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. John Roberts and Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh will be joined by at least one, and probably two new justices during the next administration. They already have four solid votes to reverse Brown v. Board of Education and restore official school segregation, with no budgets for non-white schools.
People who want continuing education, and healthcare, and fair housing, and fairness in hiring need to find the energy and the time that Rosa Parks and her sisters taught us could be found. We have come too far to let a handful of racists make us slide back into history.