This is a guest post by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is (lightly) adapted from the “Last Word” column in the current issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. That issue marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States.
One hundred and seventy-one years ago, 300 women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, and shook the world with a simple proclamation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal.” With those words, the women of Seneca Falls ignited a relentless, generations-long struggle by America’s women to secure what is rightfully ours: the sacred right to vote.
Yet, for more than 70 years after, the full promise of equality would be denied to America’s women. During that time, women did not wait for change — they demanded change. For decades, in the face of overwhelming challenges, courageous women protested and picketed, marched and mobilized, were beaten and jailed and finally won the right to vote.
The first woman elected to Congress in 1916, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, led the fight to pass the 19th Amendment, asking, “How shall we explain the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” It would be another two years before the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, but Rankin and countless other suffragists never wavered in their fierce determination to secure the right to vote.
When the amendment was ratified, headlines described this milestone as women being “given” the right to vote. Nothing was given; women fought for their rights.
Generations after women won the right to vote, we would have to fight for another right: the right to take our seat at the decision-making table. When I came to Congress, there were only 25 women in Congress. Back then, women weren’t considered a threat to the established, male-dominated power in Washington. Yet, we refused to sit on the sidelines. We knew our purpose and we knew our power — and we used it to make progress, demanding not only a seat at the table, but a seat at the head of the table.
Today, how incredible it is that, in the same Congress that will mark 100 years since women won the right to vote, we serve with more than 100 women members – and, of course, with a woman Speaker!
Our women members made history — and now, they are making a difference. Just like the suffragists of the past, these women are fighting to ensure that every freedom, every liberty and every right belongs to every American — including the right to be heard at the ballot box, which is the mainstay of our democracy. The suffragists’ noble cause continues in our fight against blatantly partisan, morally wrong voter suppression efforts that target communities of color.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we must channel the same pioneering spirit of the suffragists and rededicate ourselves to the important work left to be done to bring our nation closer to its founding promise of full fairness and equality.
The Library of Congress’ exhibition, “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote,” plays an important role in this mission. This special initiative not only celebrates the suffragists of the past, it informs and inspires the change-makers of our future. It is my hope that all who experience this exhibition will be empowered to stand on the suffragists’ shoulders, to speak out and make their voices for change heard, particularly young women and girls. As we say: When women succeed, America succeeds!
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