Smithsonian Magazine: Women Senators Reflect on the 100th Anniversary of Suffrage

Twenty-four lawmakers shared testimonials with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

When suffragist Jeannette Rankin was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1916, she made a prescient prediction: “I may be the first woman member of Congress. But I won’t be the last.”

One hundred and four years later, a record-breaking number of women sit in both congressional chambers, with 26 serving in the Senate and 105 in the House. Now, on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which extended the franchise to (mostly white) women on a federal level, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has partnered with Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee to present a collection of women senators’ reflections on suffrage.

The testimonials—available via the online version of the museum’s “Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage” exhibition—run the gamut from personal anecdotes to visions of the future and celebrations of trailblazing women activists, including Anne Henrietta Martin, Marilla Ricker, Sojourner Truth and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Several recurring themes persist: namely, the experience of being “the first” woman to hold a certain position and the importance of encouraging future generations to continue upending politics’ male-dominated status quo.

As Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who became Mississippi’s first woman congressional representative in 2018, reflects, “Society should encourage young women to pursue elected office. In fact, society needs them. I feel a level of gratification when younger women and girls look at me and see that they can also do these things.”

Senator Kamala Harris, who served as California’s first woman attorney general and is now the first woman of color nominated for national office by a major political party, says she draws inspiration from her predecessors, crediting women like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and her own mother with guiding her career in public service.

Adds Harris, “My mother used to say, ‘Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something.’”

Echoing her colleagues’ sentiments, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan emphasizes the power of representation, explaining, “If there is only one, that’s a token. If we have many women’s voices, we have a democracy.”

In addition to spotlighting senators’ stories, “Creating Icons” explores the aftermath of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, from suffrage leaders’ deliberate omission of certain narratives—particularly those of women of color—to the movement’s modern successors, including the 1977 National Women’s Conference and the 2017 Women’s March.

“The 19th Amendment gave women the ability to vote for themselves. Because of the 19th Amendment, the women of Congress have the ability to vote on behalf of all of us. They can create new amendments,” says the show’s curator, Lisa Kathleen Graddy. “It wasn’t without setbacks and it wasn’t without struggle. A 100th anniversary, especially in an election year, is the perfect time for them to reflect on how the 19th Amendment and the opportunities and challenges it created inspired them to public service and to share their advice for the next generation of women who will serve and lead.”

Read excerpts from 24 senators’ statements below, and click the link at the bottom of each profile to navigate to the full testimonial. Entries are organized alphabetically by state and last name.

Lisa Murkowski | Alaska

Year Alaska Women Gained Suffrage: 1913 (Territory of Alaska)

First Female Alaska Senator Elected: 2002 (Murkowski)

First Woman in Congress Representing Alaska: 2002 (Murkowski)

I take pride in the fact that Alaska is a state filled with strong, independent women. Alaskan women own and captain their own fishing boats. They work as oil rig operators and diesel mechanics. Alaskan women are CEOs for oil companies and Native corporations. They are leaders in education and advocates for children, seniors, and victims of domestic violence.

Looking back at Alaska’s history, we have been a relatively progressive state when it comes to women’s rights. So progressive that many Alaskan women received equal voting rights with men in 1913—seven years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, when Alaska was still a territory. The sad detail of that history though was that Alaska Native women were excluded from the right to vote for several more decades.

I was fortunate to be raised in a family where education was valued, but a stereotype clearly existed about “boy jobs and girl jobs.” The expectation coming from a large family, growing up in small Alaskan communities, was that the girls would either become nurses or teachers. So as a young girl, I made it my goal to become a teacher like my grandmother.

As planned, I declared my major in education. During my sophomore year of college, I was required to take a course in economics. The professor called me in before midterms and told me I should drop his class or he would have to fail me. When I asked why, he told me, “You clearly don’t get it, and you can’t get it.”

I don’t recall what grade I eventually earned, but I not only remained in his course, I also changed my major from education to economics.

It wasn’t because I had some driving desire for this particular degree. It was because someone told me I couldn’t do something that I knew I was capable of doing.

As I think back on it, the gender stereotyping that existed during my younger years didn’t stand out to me because at that time, many women didn’t know differently. When I look at the STEM opportunities available to girls today, it makes me proud that we are knocking down the expectation that boys should go down one career path and girls down another. We know the inequities that women continue to face and see a growing pressure as a nation to change them.

As I write this we are at an all-time high in the U.S. Senate with 26 female senators. This all-time high is still far too low. We must have more women serving as our lawmakers and our policy makers.

For women entering political office, there can be considerable self-doubt. We are convinced we don’t have the experience; we are too young; it is too hard to balance work and a family. And the truth is, there is never a convenient time to serve in public office. But that makes it even more important to make sure that, as women, we are supporting and empowering other women.

As we acknowledge the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the progress we have made I am reminded of the work that remains in the fight for equality for all—all genders, all races, all religions. Our work continues.

By:  Meilan Solly
Source: Smithsonian Magazine