Women’s Equality Day: What Is Suffrage, Anyway?
I think most of us who grew up in the United States in the late 20th century have a limited understanding of what the right to vote actually means. As we celebrate 90 years of women’s suffrage this year, it’s interesting to look back to the founding of the US and consider what voting, and democracy, meant to early Americans.
I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States this week, and its chapters do a great job of putting democracy in perspective. The Founders, lauded in our classrooms as almost omnipotent men, benevolent providers of justice and equality, were actually concerned at the founding of our country about making the Constitution too democratic. The Founders didn’t want to risk the United States becoming a nation where rich and poor people alike had a share in the workings of state, and they certainly didn’t see blacks, women, Indians, or recent immigrants getting involved. Property qualifications varied from state to state, but everywhere the voting population was a definite minority of the general populous.
Now, of course, people can vote without owning any property. Blacks, women, naturalized citizens, American Indians, and the poor make up a large part of the total voting population. But capitalism is still firmly entrenched in our ideas of government and society. Children still sneer at “commies,” and those in power are ingenious at turning different groups against one another and stigmatizing any desire for socialism or communal living. Our system of property ownership, our “rags to riches myth,” the institution of marriage–all these things perpetuate a capitalist ideal that focuses on the individual, not the group. And who’s in power? Well, the business interests still aren’t doing too badly. Rich white men may be joined by women and people of color in the corridors of power, but classism in the United States is alive and well, along with racism and sexism.
So let’s continue fighting for equality, rather than resting on our laurels. Let’s take this occasion to reflect on how we can use our activism, our writing, our entrepreneurship, our leadership, our coalitions, and yes, our vote, creatively to increase access to political life and economic well-being for more and more people in the United States. And let’s think about how we define “well-being,” exactly, and consider how our hallowed institutions do and don’t meet our needs as individuals and a community.