ESSAY- Suffragist city: Beginnings and endings on Women's Equality Day

Last Thursday, August 26 was the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the one that granted women the right to vote. I've been thinking about this one for a while.

In fact, when I began my career as a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot News in 1961, one of my first assignments was covering the 41st anniversary of this Amendment. I was one of six women on the newspaper, all of us assigned to the Women's Section, which, ironically, was edited by a man.

For my story, I reviewed the history of the women's movement back to the first Women's Rights Convention convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848. It took until 1920– 72 years of struggle–- to get the right to vote.

A Pennsylvania suffragist still alive in 1961 told me that she and her colleagues often used existing political gatherings to argue their cause, and not all women were convinced that voting was the right way to go. She recounted that one suffragist, so stunned by the polished rhetoric of an anti-suffragist, tried a little reverse psychology as a debating point: "My opponent with all her intelligence and eloquence certainly belongs in the halls of Congress," said the suffragist, "while I should remain a housewife."

In the early 20th century, the movement focused on the workplace. While many women toiled in factories and in the "female" occupations, women had fewer economic and educational opportunities– and no representation in the federal halls of power. There were 22 states and territories that allowed women to vote in their elections, but most states denied the right.

As I talked to the Pennsylvania suffragists nearly 40 years ago, I liked to think that I would have been one of them. A few years later, I was a wife and mother when I read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which sealed my fate as a modern-day suffragist, that is, a feminist. Increasingly, I questioned why women couldn't do the same jobs as men.

Why couldn't our daughters grow up to be doctors or lawyers? And by the way, I thought, why can't I be a lawyer? I'll admit that after initially perusing a George Washington University law school catalog, I found the academic schedule too daunting for a mother of two toddlers, even with their dedicated feminist father at my side.

By 1971, the movement then known as Women's Liberation had been launched, Ms. magazine founded, and Bella Abzug convinced Congress to proclaim August 26 as Women's Equality Day. My friends and I celebrated as we continued to advance in our jobs and take care of kids.

Fast forward to 1986, and I am graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, a place where I could not have pursued undergraduate studies back in 1957 when I was graduating from high school. During my graduation year, female enrollment in the law school class was 35 percent, and I was told this was the highest female enrollment to date. (By contrast, the class of 2012 is 47 percent female.)

While I had few professional female role models, my grandmother, widowed in her 40s, became independent by necessity and found a position as a college housemother at Mary Washington. My mother worked outside the home as a secretary when that was not the norm. These two women, along with numerous teachers, scout leaders, and friends both male and female, demonstrated that exercising competence and freedom in the larger world could be very satisfying.

My mother's and grandmother's modest goals helped me set mine a little higher– to eventually become a lawyer who would work in the public interest. My 24 years at the Southern Environmental Law Center have given me that wonderful context in which to advocate for the beautiful earth I inhabit and want to preserve.

Last week, as I celebrated Women's Equality Day, it was also my last day before retiring as an attorney from the SELC.

I've come full circle in my work life– from being a reporter, editor, wife, and stay-at-home-mom to working mom editor, adult educator, and counselor, administrator, lawyer, small town politician, and teacher. 

We women have come a long way since 1920. Hillary Clinton was close to becoming president; and now, she, Condeleeza Rice, and Madeline Albright have made serving as a female secretary of state seem routine. An August 22 Washington Post article points out that women dominate the American nuclear diplomatic debates at the highest echelons.

Locally, we've had women represented on the City Council ever since Jill Rinehart was elected in 1972 and Nancy O'Brien became Mayor in 1976. Similarly, the County has had able representation from women beginning in 1976 with the late Opal David.

Yet there is a lack of women at the state level. No woman has held an elected statewide office since the 1988 re-election of Mary Sue Terry as Attorney General. Of the 40 state senators, just eight are women; of the Virginia House of Delegates, just 18 out of 100 are women.

One can view the glass as half empty or half full. My own personal glass is overflowing.

On August 26 (interestingly also my first born's birthday), I retired from my beloved vocation as a professional advocate and attorney. I celebrated not only the end of my professional career but also those feisty women who preceded me– the celebrated and the forgotten– who worked for access to the ballot box, to universities and professional schools, to board rooms, courthouses, city halls and to legislatures. If not for them, my glass today would not be so full.

So let the celebrations continue. Here's to those pioneering women and also our daughters and granddaughters, our colleagues and friends, and the women of generations to come.


The author served as mayor during the final two of her eight years, 1990-98, on City Council. 



"When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Here's wishing Kay a glorious retirement. I suspect that we haven't seen the last of her contributions to our community.

Mary McKinley

I loved the article, Kay. It certainly resonated with me since I was the first woman to serve on our city council in small town Kentucky in the early '70s. My first test of self control came when the other councilmen, thinking it was a compliment, nominated me to ride on the city's float in the Christmas parade. They never quite understood why I said thanks but no thanks with a smile. The mayor who had appointed me to fill an unexpired term was a progressive male. He could hardly contain his laughter! Probably I was elected to my next term only by virtue of my party affiliation. When I ran for school board in 1974 and called on households soliciting votes, the women said, "I'm not sure whom we will vote for. I haven't asked my husband yet." When I asked who was in the schools most, who helped with homework and who solved any problems that arose, they, without missing a beat, said, "Why I do!" I ran three time and by the time I ran the third time, no woman told me she would have to check with her spouse! Our BOE now often has more women than men and women are well represented on city council. In the years since, we have elected one female mayor, and women lawyers abound in my hometown as well as women doctors and on and on. I took great pride in telling my Kentucky friends that my Virginia friend was the mayor of Charlottesville! May your kind increase! Thanks for sharing your work.

I feel blessed to live in Washington state currently, where our governor is a woman (Chris Gregoire) and both our US Senators are women (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell). The heads of many state government agencies are also women. Many good examples of very competent and successful women here.
My mother had a degree in mechanical engineering and worked for the US Patent Office. My grandmother had a degree in Physics and was a school teacher. I didn't know that those were unusual for women until I was in college as I was always told I could be or do anything I wanted to.
Many thanks to all the women who have been and continue to be successful role models.