This week, we conclude our UNEVEN MEASURES series the same way we began on August 18th by asking a new group of ten artists and art leaders to respond to the prompt:
What does the 19th amendment mean to you?
Over the course of this 11-week special series, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN and American Composers Forum have made it our goal to not only amplify the voices of today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists, but also to interrogate our history through a contemporary lens. As we mark the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, we have felt that it is our responsibility to dissect this complex milestone that is too often blindly celebrated as a landmark achievement.
It’s no coincidence that we share this essay with you on the last day of voting in the most critical election of our lifetimes. As the responses below from Anne LeBaron, brin solomon, Chrysanthe Tan, Jenny Bilfield, Kristy Edmunds, Michelle Ramos, Stacy Garrop, Stephanie Lamprea, Tania León, and X. Lee all conclude, the 19th Amendment wasn’t the end of the road to an equitable society. Voter suppression still exists. Threats to our democracy still exist. So let us name these things explicitly and keep doing the work.
The right to vote. How often do we take voting for granted? Mildred Madison, who at 94 years of age recently traveled more than 600 miles round trip to vote in the current election, serves as a reminder to treasure our hard-won right. After being prevented from voting for 143 years subsequent to the founding of this country, the historic ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave white women, and much later, Black women, voting rights once and for all. The suffrage movement started in 1848 with a gathering in Seneca Falls, New York. I’m struck by the courage, determination, and faith of those who struggled against all odds for more than seven decades, and prevailed. As long as we have a democracy that respects and honors our Constitution, theirs is a forever achievement, one that may actually play a role in preserving our democracy in this year’s election.
As a composer, I’m drawn to numbers and patterns. Prior to its ratification, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919. Look at the numerological characteristics of the amendment number and the date of passage: combining 1 + 9 three times and 6 + 4 once results in a series of four 10s. What is the significance here? Attainment, wholeness, infinite potential are qualities associated with the number ten. Which brings me to how the voting rights passage for women impacts my life. Quite simply, I cannot fathom a life without fundamental rights, including the right to vote, the right to attain excellence and wholeness, and the right to pursue one’s potential. Yet such rights remain vulnerable in the face of voter suppression. We must continue to practice vigilance in order to preserve and expand these privileges for future generations.
It’s not that the 19th Amendment doesn’t mean much to me today, it’s that I wish people would say less that it “gave (white) women the right to vote” and more that it made it de jure illegal to restrict voting rights because of sex. Some women voted in the U.S. over a century before 1920; rights are less gifts from benevolent governments and more concessions extracted by rigorous organization and militant struggle; just because something is nominally illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. And, if we’re being honest, wedging in the word “white” often feels more cursory, for appearance’s sake, than a genuine engagement with famous suffragettes’ open, unapologetic racism and the myriad ways this country has stripped and continues to strip non-white people of their rights.
It’s not that the 19th Amendment doesn’t mean much to me, it’s that so many celebrations of it were so clearly conceived around the gender binary—their trans inclusion an afterthought, if present at all—with an exhausting erasure of the ways queer and trans people have historically been disenfranchised.
It’s not that it doesn’t mean much, it’s that fawning over the 19th Amendment feels like shoring up the myth of the U.S. as a country that is Fundamentally Good, a place that always does the right thing in the end, a political system that can be tweaked into perfection without being razed utterly. Even with universal enfranchisement, we will never vote our way out of this dystopia.
When I was 9, my dad took me voting for the first time. It was his third election since becoming a naturalized citizen, and I stuck to him like glue, solemnly swearing to be on my best behavior. In the booth, he let me press down on the machine to mark his votes. I felt so proud to have helped.
My dad felt proud, too, and we celebrated on the drive to school. I belted his favorite songs at the top of my lungs: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” He told me for the millionth time how lucky I was to be born in America. How I would never experience genocide like he did in Cambodia, never live in refugee camps, never have to prove my citizenship. I should be grateful to be American. Grateful to live in the USA.
I’ve carried the gift and burden of that gratefulness ever since. To be grateful is a glorious thing, but it often comes with a tacit corollary of undeservedness, even subservience: “I’m lucky to be American, because America is too good for people like me.” “I’m lucky to be at this school, because they usually reject people like me.” “I’m lucky for the right to vote, because voting wasn’t intended for people like me.” Subservient gratitude is such a low bar.
When I reflect on the 19th Amendment, I’ll set aside a symbolic hand clap but continue to empower and seek empowerment elsewhere.
The 19th Amendment is remembered as an inflection point in American history, but the voting rights it conferred were intended for, and exercised largely by, white women. The centenary reminds me that progress for some so often comes at the exclusion of others, and is often accompanied by a false sense of solidarity. With every passing day, I see parallels in this history everywhere…and the collective opportunity to step up and do better.
When I launched into my arts management career–NYC in the 1980s–women executives were a rarity; those who succeeded were often expected to conform to a stereotype of invincibility. The few who did occupy the positions of Executive Director or President were indeed white like me (with few exceptions). It took a while for my own vision to adjust to the blinding whiteness of our community of female (and of course, overwhelmingly male) arts leaders. And as I awakened to this reality, my hearing also became attuned to the racist tropes and familiar excuses that belied progress: the view that seeking diversity was akin to compromising quality, etc. Having made “advances” in one area, white women were not leaping to make space for Black and Brown women…if in fact, they even recognized their absence. My mother used to call this a “sin of omission.” But I am hopeful now, excited that we are finally speaking frankly, taking meaningful action, and shifting organizational cultures. This is a long relay race and a team effort. Let’s keep going.
At 18, I asked my great-grandmother what it was like when the 19th Amendment passed. She celebrated the significance, however distant it was to the conditions of daily survival in her remote corner of the West. She described how this new responsibility added to her heaving workload, but was never squandered (winter storms permitting). She would dress up, hitch the wagon, and make the difficult journey into town to contribute her ‘marks.’ Her daughter, my grandmother, saw it as a liberty that one honored through use. She was involved in what and who she thought would improve the nation, or at least be ‘better than the other guy.’ She voted for the sake of her right rather than through a vested passion for political outcomes. “I’m curbing my enthusiasm until women are in office.”
My mother saw the 19th through a lens of authentic contribution. Her vote was an upholding of our cooperative entanglement in world betterment. By having “weight on the board,” women logically increased the promise of democracy by ensuring a vast intelligence could not be side-lined or silenced by the over-amplified priorities of men.
I have inherited a permanent place at the table to inform the policies, purse-strings, and leadership traits that will help or hinder our interdependent humanity. I vote with gratitude for those who made it possible for me to do so in the first place, and from the belief that our democracy is a promise worth keeping.
The 19th Amendment was, and is still, for people with privilege. To be clear, it was a law enacted for white women to vote, and, as a self identified woman, I am grateful for this amendment as a cornerstone of the work that has since been done through its ratification. But I am clear there is much yet to be done to liberate all to have this same privilege.
As a Black woman, during the ratification of this amendment in the 1920s, I would have not been given the right to vote. As a Latina granddaughter of an immigrant, I hold vivid memories of my grandfather Andrés longing to cast a vote every election, wishing to contribute to a country he came to with hope and an open heart, and who worked himself to the bone in the fields, or my grandmother working as a maid in white folks homes, only to be told they didn’t matter to this country. But my grandfather always loved this country with everything he had and never took his place in it for granted.
As a lawyer, I wanted to believe in our laws and the justice system. I thought if I could learn the system, I could help be a part of the solution…but time and time again, it became clear to me the system was not designed for my people and that even as I held that degree, I was still Afro-Latina and those identities would always preface my identity as a woman, a lawyer, or a community member. So the 19th Amendment? Nothing more than just a scratch in the surface of work to be done towards liberation for all.
In conducting research into Suffragists and the 19th Amendment this past year, I was struck by the magnitude of the task of winning the vote for women. Many men didn’t want women having a say in running the government, writing laws, serving on juries, or even claiming ownership of property or possessions once married. Carrie W. Clifford said it best when she wrote in 1915, “The ballot! The sign of power, the means by which things are brought to pass, the talisman that makes our dreams come true!” Suffragists had to fight tooth and nail to organize, to write articles and give lectures, to petition local and national officials, to get the government to listen to them. They believed so strongly in their cause that they worked tirelessly towards their goal for decades. As time went by, they passed their torches to the following generations to keep the cause alive.
The 19th Amendment means that when enough of us unite, we can achieve great change that profoundly affects and improves the lives of citizens. When that change doesn’t achieve all of our goals, then we must keep at it until we affect more change. The 19th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act have helped move our country’s needle, but the fight isn’t done until women are seen as complete equals to men in the eyes of the law. Can we rally once again to pass the Equal Rights Amendment that would grant us these rights?
The 19th Amendment was a step in the right direction, and it’s a feat that took incredible strength and persistence from many women to create. But still, this step is incomplete. Beyond the glaring fact that it betrayed women of color, the 19th Amendment didn’t end patriarchy in the U.S., nor is the right to vote a pill for the misogyny that continues to infect the nation. Yes, my voice has been ratified when it comes to voting in the election, but my voice is still ridiculed, rebuked, and silenced by men, every single day.
I cringe at every catcall I witness in the street, every non-consensual touch, and every patronizing remark that is fired at women everywhere. I wept watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford describe before the Senate her brutal experience of being sexually assaulted. And in moments when I needed to raise my voice, I resent having to silently translate my words and water them down to feel safe in the eyes and minds of men.
So yeah. We can vote. Cool. But when will the fundamental injustice be acknowledged? When will women finally be seen and treated as equal? When will men and boys be taught to treat women as such? I’m so tired of the expectation as a woman to be “nurturing” and “charming.” I’m so tired of being called intense, a diva, or an outright b****, for simply standing up for myself. I’m just really tired.
Two years ago, the NY Philharmonic asked me to write a piece for the centennial of the 19th Amendment. I began researching Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer crusader for women’s suffrage in the United States. As I immersed myself in her history, flashes of my grandmother and mother’s lives caused me to enter an altered state of consciousness. Did they know of Anthony’s call for an amendment that would guarantee women’s right to vote? Yet, the amendment discriminated against women of color–something which ended only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Children of color in poor Havana households, both women were maids when they were 8-years-old. It was at my grandmother’s insistence that the professors at the conservatory began teaching me piano and music theory before I could read and write. At 9-years-old, I dreamt of going to Paris to become a concert pianist. A twist of fate brought me to the States in my early 20s, but providing me with a strong education was the way these women sustained my dream–a dream which became their own.
Today, I think of them, the women’s efforts towards inclusion, and our current efforts to attain greater diversity. This work can and will bring out the humanity and empathy in all of us, create a common cultural exchange rather than something we have to try to do. “To diversify” denotes an effort that uplifts and contributes to building a more balanced, positive and compassionate world.
“What does the 19th Amendment mean to you?” As I sat with this question, I realized how uninformed I was. I was confronted with the realization that the extent of my knowledge was bound to our American history classes’ shallow explanation of women’s suffrage; framing the 19th Amendment as a celebratory pivotal landmark for gender equality. After doing research and readings to educate myself on this topic, I can recognize and commemorate its importance and its step towards progress. I can not, and we should not, however, disregard the history of exclusion and the ongoing active suppression of marginalized communities’ votes (especially Black/indigenous votes); whose rights are most often the ones debated and affected.
We have to realize that there is no true liberty without intersectional enfranchisement. We can not proclaim an accomplishment that benefits only a few when it’s built on the backs of the many that were not invited to the table. Putting complete trust in a government that continues to fail and disenfranchise is destructive. As a first generation Asian-American, I recognize the significance of democracy, freedom of speech, and how the fundamental right to vote for all is a crucial component to the fight for equality; but it alone is not enough to ensure a society that does not operate on the oppression of any gender, race, and/or class. We must continue to actively participate in the creation, support, and empowerment of communities, and the people.
UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.