My mother, Jane Worley Peak, celebrated her 96th birthday a few weeks ago. Which means that she was born just a few weeks prior to the first time women were allowed to vote in a presidential election in this country. Today, she plans to vote for Hillary Clinton for President.
It took almost 150 years for the United States to extend the franchise to women. 150 years. And it took generations of women — and a few men — who courageously worked for suffrage, worked through hatred, invective, ridicule. These were probably the original “nasty women” of America — women who believed that the meaning of the Constitution was more true than the words of the Constitution, and that when the framers wrote men, what they meant was human. 150 years during which “strict constructionists” in the mode of Antonin Scalia, told them they were wrong.
In honor of all those women, I will wear white today.
My mother told me recently that she doesn’t know if HER mother, Ruth Potter Worley, voted in 1920. Mom never thought to ask, and now it’s too late. Grandmother Ruth might have, because she was a true feminist, well before her time. Or she might have stayed home — she was, after all, just delivered of a squally baby. And she had a house to run. We will never know.
What we do know is that my Grandmother Ruth believed in women’s education, and was willing to put her money — her grocery money — to work to make sure the young women of her acquaintance made something of themselves. Not only did my mother and her sister both eventually earn Ivy League master’s degrees, but Grandmother Ruth stole — excuse me, repurposed– money out of her $20 per month housekeeping allowance and gave it away to help the daughters of friends further their education. She opened her house to two of her nieces to make it financially possible for them to go to college. And she quietly, but definitely, ran the household and made the household decisions while her husband was traveling as part of his work.
In remembrance of my Grandmother Ruth I am wearing white today.
We’ve come a long way in the past 96 years. My mother has lived through a Depression, World War, raised three children, delighted in grandchildren and now is doting on her five-year-old great-granddaughter. She has lived to see women serve in the boardroom and on the battlefield. But the headlines of this year’s election prove that many of the battles fought by the suffragettes and lived by my mother and grandmother have never gone away.
The misogyny, hatred, prejudice, lewdness spewed by Trump — and tolerated by the so-called “Republican establishment” — proves that the suffragettes’ work is far from over. The continued conversation over what women should be legally allowed to wear and who should be in control of their bodies proves that the suffragettes’ work is far from over. The reality that women in this country still make 70 cents on the dollar for comparable work done by men proves that the suffragettes’ work is far from over. The fact that the world and headlines are more interested in bad judgment over a female candidate’s email server and is ignoring the fact that a foreign power is working hard to influence this election proves that the suffragettes’ work is far from over.
For all the battles that are still to be fought, I will wear white today.
We don’t know if Grandmother Ruth voted in 1920, but we do know she was a proud Republican her entire life. My mother was as well — until the undiluted misogyny of George HW Bush’s first campaign pushed her to vote for Clinton. Since then, and really based on feminist and social issues, she has consistently voted Democratic. Today, my mother will vote in what is demographically likely to be her last presidential election. And when great-granddaughter Lily is old enough to understand, I will tell her that her great-grandmother Jane was born before women held the franchise in this country, and that she lived long enough to vote for a woman to be president.
I will tell Lily that her great-grandmother, and mine, and all those generations of suffragettes believed that a woman’s place was wherever her talents and her hard work could take her, and that that definitely included the White House. I will tell little Lily that she should never, ever take the legacy they won for her for granted. I will tell her that the best way to honor that legacy would be to continue the fight in her own time.
I will tell Lily that whenever she is discouraged or feels that the journey is just too tough, that’s when she should dig in her closet and remember to wear white.