Women’s right to vote, achieved a century ago, and what women can do today to achieve equal rights for all, were common themes of a panel discussion at the “Our Voices, Our Votes” event held Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Empire Arts Center.
The “Voices in Leadership” panel included former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp; state Sen. Judy Lee; Susan Carter, president of the National Woman’s Party; Marilyn Youngbird, tribal elder of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation; and state Sen. JoNell Bakke.
The local ERA NOW group and the National Woman’s Party partnered to host “Our Voices, Our Votes: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Women Winning the Right to Vote,” a series of activities to draw attention to the battle for women’s suffrage, which led to the passage of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Other events included the opening of an art exhibit, “Her Votes Count,” a poetry reading, a performance by Dance Etc. and screening of the film, “Iron Jawed Angels,” a historical drama about the women’s suffrage movement.
Panel discussion touched on progress made since women won the right to vote in 1920. The contributions of several notable North Dakota women who are credited with supporting equal rights for women -- including some who lived more than a century ago -- were mentioned, such as Dr. Cora Smith King, the first woman to receive a medical license in North Dakota; Era Bell Thompson, editor of Ebony magazine; and Heitkamp, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota.
Examples of past injustices were noted, such as women being forced to resign from their jobs when they married or became pregnant, being denied ownership of property through inheritance or divorce and being limited to work as teachers, nurses and secretaries.
Heitkamp recalled her efforts as a UND student in 1973 to support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, by gathering signatures on campus.
“It impacted me because I saw that activism, by all of us, actually changed outcomes,” Heitkamp said.
She cited “deep divisions politically” that the country faces today, yet “the cab driver in New York City and the farm wife want the same things -- a better life for their kids,” she said.
The National Woman’s Party President Carter said: “Today, it feels like we’re backsliding on rights. There’s a fight to be had and progress to be made.”
Youngbird pointed out that Native Americans did not receive the right to vote until 1964 and criticized recent steps that she and others view as limiting Native Americans’ voting rights.
She urges people to “get involved; quit being complacent,” she said.
All the speakers stressed the need for women to get involved, get informed and voice their concerns about issues that matter to them.
Lee said: “We need more women in the Legislature, on city councils and county commissions.”
She urged women to “talk about solutions” with lawmakers and government officials.
The scarcity of women in governing bodies is cause for concern, several panelists agreed.
Gracie Lian, UND’s student body president, who delivered welcome remarks, said that while 13 of the 20 members, or 65%, of UND’s Student Senate are women, only 25% of Congress members are women.
But Lian is optimistic that “we are raising a generation of women to conquer that gap,” she said.
Bakke said: “Often, I feel our people are not paying attention,” as evidenced by the percentage of those who vote.
“I’d like to see more people voting, having those conversations with their legislators," said Bakke, adding that she regrets not running for the state Legislature earlier.
“The biggest mistake of my life is that I didn’t say yes the first time I was asked. (Serving in the legislature) is the most incredible experience of my life," she said.
Lee, too, urged women to consider running for elected office, “but please don’t be a single-issue candidate,” she said. “I’m less concerned about gender than I am about values and thinking and evaluation and thoughtful consideration of what’s going on. Be part of the solution.
“ ‘Tell me more’ is my favorite phrase,” Lee said. “I’ve found that the more I learn about (an issue), the less black and white it becomes.”