In 1995 I packed a tape of the video documentary, “One Woman, One Vote,” to take to my mother so I could show her a couple of my allotted “15 minutes of fame.” Serving as an advisor to Ruth Pollack’s wonderful production and being one of the “talking heads” on that show was one of the peak experiences of my career as a feminist historian. I was not prepared for my mother’s response, however. As the credits faded, she burst into tears, and turned to me saying, “No one told me about this. It happened in my lifetime and I had no idea.”
My mother was born in 1917 just as the struggle for woman suffrage was entering its climactic three years of struggle. She grew up on an eastern North Carolina farm and was only 13 when the country slid into the great depression. Though my mother broke barriers herself as one of six female students at North Carolina State College (a land-grant school where she majored in landscape architecture), she never imagined stepping outside the roles of wife and mother as an adult. I grew up in the shadow of her anger and depression. She should have been a scientist, but there was no movement to tell her she was not alone and she could take risks.
I went to graduate school in part because I didn’t want to be trapped the way my mother had been. Her anger in some way fueled my determination as it had also prepared me for the second wave of feminism that framed the questions that created the new field of women’s history. I had pursued that career for several decades when my mother’s sorrow and anger taught me again how essential it is to know our story.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the right to vote was the issue that most fully symbolized women’s exclusion from all the male-dominated domains of public life: politics, education and the professions. Several generations endured ridicule and even violence when they pointed out the deep flaw in a democracy premised on the idea that “all men are created equal.” And of course, the founding fathers didn’t even include all men, so that for 200 years women’s struggles have inevitably been linked with the struggles of working people and racial minorities.
We stand on amazing shoulders. In the year my mother was born women picketed the White House with gloves, hats and quiet dignity carrying sharply worded signs that called attention to the hypocrisy of a president who led his country into World War I to make “the world safe for democracy,” when half the adult population of his own country was forbidden the most basic right of citizenship. They persevered through jailing, hunger strikes and violent force-feeding while thousands of others organized at the grassroots across the country to generate a movement that could not be turned back. Women won the vote in 1920 when my mother was only 3.
Despite that victory, my mother grew up in a world in which women were legally barred from serving on juries. If married, they could not own property or receive credit in their own names. It was perfectly legal to pay women less than men for exactly the same work and to advertise jobs for “men only.” Women had broken into most professions but they remained marginal and exceptional because professional schools routinely imposed quotas for female admissions of about 5 percent.
No wonder my mother had no idea. Not only was she deprived of a heroic history but also she never imagined the possibility of a supportive sisterhood. She always knew she could vote, but she did not inherit the movement’s sense of hope and the determination to change the world so that women could explore the fullest range of their own potential.
It was my good luck to fall into that next wave of feminism. But I take this lesson: We must do all in our power to share the stories so that even though whatever has been won is incomplete, no young woman will feel that she is alone.
Sara Evans is Regents Professor Emerita from the University of Minnesota where she taught U.S. women’s history. She is the author of “Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America” and “Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End.”
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