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Celebrating the Fight for Women’s Suffrage: An Interview with Nancy Tate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

Lauren Bock Mullins recently took time to interview Nancy Tate, former executive director of the national League of Women Voters, about her time at the League, the struggle for women to win the right to vote, and the upcoming year commemorating that momentous achievement.

For 15 years, you served as executive director of the League of Women Voters of the United States, which you have noted is the only national organization started by the suffragists still in operation today. How was it formed and what is its mission?

Let me provide some background on the women’s suffrage movement to enable women to vote. Starting in 1848 with the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, the organized struggle in the United States for women’s right to vote took 72 years, spanning organizations and generations of supporters. It was a tough fight. By 1915, the movement had split again, with different strategies for achieving the goal of amending the United States Constitution.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Carrie Chapman Catt and the largest organization, focused on building the state-by-state support needed to convince Congress and then eventually ratify the amendment.

Catt officially founded the League of Women Voters in 1920, six months before the 19th Amendment passed. It was conceived as a “mighty political experiment” to help 20 million American women carry out their responsibilities as voters in shaping public policy and their society. From the beginning, advocacy and education have been its dual purposes. The goal was to continue the fight—not just for the vote or just for women, but for a wide range of public policy issues affecting the nation.

The League’s core mission has not changed, though its structure and the issues it addresses have evolved. The League is a grassroots organization with nearly 800 state and local leagues run primarily by volunteer members. It has a decentralized structure; each state and local league is empowered to deal directly with the level of government closest to it. The national League—the League of Women Voters of the United States or LWVUS—focuses on the federal government. An important point: The League began including male members almost 50 years ago.

What should public administrators know about the suffrage fight? How are those lessons relevant today?

I knew hardly anything about it myself when I came to the League. This is not a subject taught well in school. The passage of the 19th Amendment created the largest expansion of democracy on a single day the world had ever seen. The organizations with which I am working are trying to ensure this significant historical event, and the struggle that produced it, are better known and commemorated across the country. It is important for public administrators to know this and develop ways their agencies, universities and communities can join in these commemorations.  

Many of the reasons why it took 72 years of advocating to obtain the women’s vote are reasons that still exist—among them are the roles of money and special interests, and press and people in power who, at that point, were all men. The role of people in power during this time may be particularly instructive for public administrators.

President Woodrow Wilson did not cover himself in glory on the issue of women and the vote, although he ultimately supported the amendment. He put it off during this first term and did not urge passage until the country was in the midst of World War I.

A little-known fact is that wartime has been when those in power most often agreed to broaden the franchise. It becomes harder to explain the defense of democratic values while excluding various categories of people from voting. This was true for African American voters and the Voting Rights Act during the Cold War and passage of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 during the Vietnam War.

This all reflects an evolution in the concept of American democracy and representative government. Looking at the historical context is a less threatening way of enabling one to stand back and look at who can play a role in our democracy. Of course, I cannot speak about every public administrator’s job, but knowing women’s suffrage history can increase one’s sensitivity to what it is like to have no voice and what it takes to get and use one.

How can the public administration community—practitioners and academics alike—get involved with commemorating the successful struggle for women to win the vote?

The place to start is to find out what other organizations are doing. Efforts are underway at the national, state and local levels, and more are being developed all the time. Some are particularly worth noting.  

I am the co-chair of the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative (WVCI), an information-sharing collaborative of scholars and women’s organizations whose goal is to help all types of organizations commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. We are working to develop state-based networks so organizations and individuals find others with whom they might want to partner.

We also are ensuring various commemorations in Washington, DC, especially this year and next, when a number of federal museums and libraries will host exhibits on aspects of women’s fight for the vote and lessons learned. Exhibits will open this year at the Library of Congress, National Archives and National Portrait Gallery, among others. WVCI also is sponsoring a symposium series with panels each year through 2020. These will explore the suffrage struggle, with particular attention to aspects that have relevance today. WVCI’s website, www.2020centennial.org, is a great source of information.  

One of WVCI’s partners is the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites and its Votes for Women Trail initiative. The project provides resources for groups to learn more about what happened in their own community during the long struggle for suffrage. Women would not have won the vote if 36 state legislatures had not ratified the 19th Amendment, which they did due to public support. Identifying individuals who played key roles—men and women, supporters and opponents—and any homes or public buildings where key events occurred, can provide opportunities for public involvement and civic pride. Some governments and organizations are promoting these trails as part of their local attractions.

A new attraction underway near Washington, DC is the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, the only national memorial to the entire women’s suffrage movement. It is being built at the site where women who picketed the White House for the vote in 1917 were jailed and, in some cases, force-fed.  I encourage everyone to visit www.suffragistmemorial.org and consider donating so the memorial can be completed by the 2020 centennial. Individuals and organizations donating $1,000 or more will have their names listed on the Donor Wall.

The new federal Women’s Suffrage Centennial Committee will be developing initiatives, as well. This congressionally chartered group began operations in late 2018 and will create a website and promote various commemorative activities.

It is important for public administrators to know what may be going on in their own state. For instance, New York celebrated the 1917 ballot initiative that secured full voting rights for women there. In fact, several states already had legalized voting for their women citizens prior to the federal amendment, especially those in the West. That is a proud history many states and localities can celebrate.


Authors:

Lauren Bock Mullins has a PhD from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University—Newark, and an Master of Human Rights from Columbia University. She is a professor at LIU Post, teaching public administration, health administration, and research methods. Her research focuses mostly on work/family balance and social equity. She can be reached at [email protected].

Since 2015, Nancy Tate has served as the co-chair of the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative, an information sharing collaborative focused on commemorating the 100th anniversary of women winning the constitutional right to vote. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stanford University and a master’s degree in public administration from The George Washington University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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