A Near Century of Voting

Today, August 26, 2016, marks 96 years since American women won the right to vote. For the first time in U.S. history, we have a woman running for President with a serious chance of winning; yet her public image has been sullied by decades of misogynistic vitriol. I know it when I see it, because I am of her generation. Suffrage helped launch a century of progress for women, but it hasn’t come easily.

I’ve been thinking all day of my first time celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, 46 years ago now, on the 50th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 1970. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago with a dissertation left to write, I had moved to Minneapolis the previous year and quickly become active in the local women’s liberation movement. The Suffrage anniversary had been declared Women’s Equality Day in Minneapolis, and workshops and other events were planned in several venues downtown.

I took the bus downtown intent on some hearty discussion and vigorous public action. I would start my day at a workshop on Women and Economics, certainly a pressing topic. A panel of women with careers in banking and finance sat at the head of the room, before rows of chairs set up for a listening audience. One speaker offered us investment advice; another read us a pompous speech about how banks benefited women and told us with no embarrassment that her boss, a male bank president, had written it for her. The panel was well-dressed and coiffed and bejeweled, while much of the audience wore cut-off jeans. I began to feel as though I had entered an alternate universe. When the panel invited questions from the floor, I had mine ready:  How could we talk about investing when most women had little money to invest? The average working woman earned only 57 cents to the average man’s dollar. Married women could not get credit in their own names. One of the actions we had planned was for women to line up and submit applications to the city’s department stores for their own credit cards. I remember well how one of the panelists responded to my comments. With treacly condescension, she urged me to be patient. She understood that some young women were eager for that first mink coat, but such rewards took time.

Yes, Women’s Equality Day was actually two celebrations:  One for the respectable businesswomen who had “made it” in a man’s world, and another for those of us envisioning fundamental change in gender expectations. When I walked out of that workshop I looked up toward the observation deck of the Foshay Tower, the city’s tallest building, and saw what I hoped would be there: the banner reading “Women Unite” that a few women from the Twin Cities Women’s Union, a socialist feminist group, had planned to spirit up the elevator and unfurl. By this time, too, other guerrilla theater actions were drawing the attention of people on the street, as well as those emerging from the traditional workshops.

I was looking forward to using lunchtime to invade the local patriarchy by insisting on being served at one of downtown’s Men Only restaurants. My first choice was the Men’s Oak Grill on the twelfth floor of Dayton’s Department Store. It turned out to be everyone’s first choice: a crowd of jubilant women swarmed the elevators and escalators. I tried the Doctors’ Dining Room at the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Building, which was reputed to admit any business-suited man but look skeptically at women claiming to be MDs. That, too, had a long line waiting to be granted admission.

Next on my list was the separate men’s corner of the restaurant in the basement of Powers Department Store. A woman I knew from the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group gestured to me to take the empty chair at her table. The wait staff had apparently been instructed–or just decided–not to offer us any resistance, so lunch was quieter and more routine than we had expected or hoped. I got to talking with the woman across the table from me about what we might do that would be really significant and effective. Gerri Helterline, a N.O.W. member, had been making the rounds of high schools to talk to classes about women’s liberation, and I had been doing the same for the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group. We had made the same observations about classroom dynamics. Some boys snickered and made comments under their breath; some girls giggled and batted their eyelashes at the boys, while a few girls in the front watched us intently, in silence. Afterwards, as others cleared the room, those girls in the front hung around and told us about the sex discrimination they suffered at school.

Gerri and I decided to meet again, to bring a few friends, and talk about how we could get closer to the core of the problem. Our speaking engagements left us feeling like “The Freak of the Week” and we had no way to follow up on their effectiveness. We wanted to talk to teachers and administrators and to the public officials who set policy for K-12 education. Before long we had constituted ourselves the Emma Willard Task Force on Education, and we were conducting teacher workshops, meeting with school administrators, and collating a book of curriculum materials around my dining room table. For years we filled orders for that little book, Sexism in Education, which sold by word-of-mouth all over the English-speaking world.

Somewhere along the way Gerri decided to restore her name to the one she grew up with, her so-called maiden name. She filed an application to the court and paid a fee of $14. Her husband, Dan, accompanied her to court to swear that he had no objections, and I was one of her character witnesses, there to testify that she wasn’t planning to defraud anyone. The judge’s ruling was memorable: “Well, if movie stars can do it, I don’t know why you can’t.” Gerri Helterline left the courtroom as Gerri Perreault. She is one of many unsung feminists who made a huge difference in young women’s lives.

2 comments to A Near Century of Voting

  • carli bailey

    Thank you so much for this inspirational blog. The lives of all of the women in my family flashed through my mind. Because so many of their accomplishments were not considered feminine or very ladylike they celebrated them alone, in private.

    It’s women like you that paved the way for my daughters who never even thought they couldn’t accomplish something because they were girls.

    I’m looking forward to reading your blogs, thank you again.

  • Cheri

    Thanks so much, Carli. Your bold, independent-minded mom no doubt deserves credit for how you and your daughters turned out.

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