I walked through Bellefontaine cemetery in St. Louis last week on a tour of the women troublemakers buried there.
The “good trouble” kind, as the late Rep. John Lewis would describe them.
A wreath-laying ceremony brought me to the cemetery, as members of the National Women’s Political Caucus of St. Louis honored suffragist Virginia Louisa Minor.
Most people know about the history-making case of Dred and Harriet Scott suing for their freedom from the man who enslaved them. But there was another historic decision that came out of the St. Louis Courthouse.
In 1872, Minor tried to register to vote in an upcoming election. As expected, the registrar in St. Louis refused to let her because she was a woman. Minor and her husband filed a civil suit, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court. They argued that the Constitution granted women citizenship, which also included the right to vote. The High Court disagreed.
The suffragists took that defeat in the legal system and shifted course to focus on legislative change. It took decades of fighting before America ratified the 19th Amendment, which said citizens could not be denied the vote on the basis of sex.
That happened 100 years ago this month. Of course, the men in power still found ways to stop women and people of color from voting -- poll taxes, intimidation and other suppression tactics.
It may seem like a long time ago, especially to girls and young women today. But it wasn’t that long ago at all. There are tens of thousands American women alive today for whom it was illegal to vote in their lifetime. It was just 55 years ago that the Voting Rights Act really opened the doors for people who had been shut out from participating in our democracy.
For girls who have grown up with vast educational opportunities and career possibilities, this recent history should help explain why there’s still a persistent, significant wage gap between women and men in this country, why America is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, and why our country has never been able to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t even considered worthy of the vote.
There has been a festive note to commemorations of the 19th Amendment anniversary, and that was the mood at the ceremony I attended, too. Obviously, there’s been progress.
In the last presidential election, a woman received nearly 3 million more votes than the man who took office. This year, a Black and Asian woman is on a major party ballot as the candidate for vice president for the first time. More women were elected to Congress in 2018 than ever before. And at the Bellefontaine ceremony I attended, Minor’s grave blessing was given by Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones: the first Black person and the first woman to lead the city that sparked another national movement for equal rights and justice.
But some of the obstacles suffragists faced a hundred years ago may sound recognizable.
There were an outspoken group of women who fought against their own right to vote. As more men got involved in the “Anti” movement, they argued for states’ rights and cast suffragists as socialists and “enemies of the state.”
That has a familiar ring to it.
The Antis were precursors to the conservative activist women who argued against the ERA. In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine what they found so objectionable in this language: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
It’s also easy to see the strategies of the modern-day Antis. Voters having to stand in lines for hours to cast a ballot during a global pandemic. Restrictive mail-in voting among those less likely to support the party in power. Fewer polling places, delayed ballots, “lost” mail.
The more things change.
I plan to bring my daughter, who will be voting in her first election in November, to place our “I voted” stickers on Minor’s gravestone. There’s something powerful in paying homage to the women who fought so hard to have us recognized as full citizens worthy of a voice.
To have our humanity recognized.
By the way, the county executive who denied Minor the right to vote is buried in the same cemetery.
I’ll wave as we walk by.