Taking the Vote

100 years of expectations

Zoom Bomb
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
California suffragists traveled east to extend their advocacy to the federal level after winning rights in their own state.


Aug. 27 update: This article has been corrected and updated to include Nellie Meyer, the first woman superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, who joined the district last year.

A century ago, the 19th Amendment was ratified by a margin of one vote in the legislature of the 36th of 36 states that were needed at that time for approval. It’s hard to believe now that the decades-long struggle of women to gain political equality with men was ended by such a narrow margin.

At the time, there were many worries and hopes tied to the prospect of women voting. Let’s see how it worked out.

An early argument against giving women the vote was that they would simply vote as directed by their husbands or fathers. Having grown up in a politically divided house, I can personally testify that this is not true. My mother idolized Franklin Roosevelt; my father said, “I always vote for the best man, but he always seems to be a Republican.” Our dining room discussions were lively.

Many expected that women would vote in a bloc, with a focus on “women’s issues,” including education, health, religion and other domestic matters. But it turns out that women, like men, have differing ideas about what should be done regarding these “women’s issues,” and the bloc melts away in the face of such divisive proposals as unrestricted abortion access, school busing and federal vouchers for private schools.

Some felt that the “gentle sex” was unsuited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics, while others hoped that the feminine influence would calm that world down and make it less hard-edged. It’s true, as an immediate effect of the addition of women to the voting rolls, polling stations moved out of bars and into churches and schools, making the entire process cleaner and quieter.

But anyone who believes that women politicians are gentler in negotiation, or more willing to find common ground with the opposition, is invited to sit in on some of our Los Altos City Council meetings, with our five women council members as frequently and vocally at odds as any group of men could be.
The long-term consequences of the 19th Amendment are still making themselves known. In the past 100 years, women have become more and more visible in public, commercial and political areas, but there are still many issues that are considered “women’s natural fields of interest” and others where women are viewed as interlopers.

Even in education, traditionally a “woman’s area,” progress for women has been slow. When my mother worked at Los Altos High School in the early 1970s, her appointment as vice principal of curriculum was headlined in the Town Crier as “First Woman Becomes Senior Administrator at LAHS.” When my sons attended Los Altos High 20 years later, the school finally appointed its first woman principal. Twenty years later, the district finally has its first woman superintendent in Nellie Meyer.

The early suffragists recognized that the 19th Amendment fell short in many ways. It states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” but it says nothing about giving women equal protection of the laws in other ways. The Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed by early U.S. suffragist Alice Paul in 1923, was finally ratified by Congress in 1972 but has yet to be approved by the required three-fourths of state legislatures.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if in three years we could celebrate the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment by actually enacting it?

Allyson Johnson is a Los Altos resident. For more information, visit allysonjohnson.com.

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