Stanford students carry on the legacy of suffragists, 100 years later
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States, Stanford highlights some of the women students who are continuing the hard work of the suffragists who came before them.
It’s been 100 years since Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in the United States. The law was the culmination of decades of advocacy by suffragists who fought hard to expand equal voting rights.
Now, a century later, many Stanford students are building on those efforts – from organizing voting drives to leading the first Iowa caucus at Stanford to litigating gerrymandering. Here are some of the women Stanford students who are carrying on the legacy of the suffragists.
Kemi Oyewole is a second-year PhD student studying education and organizational studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. As a member of the social action committee of the San Francisco-Peninsula Alumnae Chapter (SFPAC) of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., she has helped organize candidate forums, conducted voter registration drives and advocated for issues important to voters, particularly those in the Black community.
“In the past couple of years, our advocacy has been heavily situated around increasing awareness of the 2020 Census so that people do not lose opportunities for their vote to have an impact,” Oyewole said.
Oyewole is a member of the Palo Alto League of Women Voters. She also is helping organize a summit called Black Girls Unite for Change, designed to get Black teen girls in the Bay Area excited about local and national electoral participation.
Reflecting on the centennial of the 19th Amendment, Oyewole noted the often-overlooked history of how illiterate, immigrant and Black people were marginalized in the voting process, including by some suffragists. She said that despite the animus, Black suffragists were engaged in the democratic process, such as in the 1906 elections in Denver, where a greater percentage of Black women voted than their white counterparts.
Oyewole said she views herself as part of a lineage of Black women who have championed civic engagement within and beyond the ballot box, especially as their voting rights have been under attack.
“In 2020, the United States celebrates the centennial of women’s enfranchisement, but the historic compromises made for its passage and the contemporary limitations on voting rights remind us of the distance still to travel towards liberty and justice for all,” she said. “In the words of legendary voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.’”
Emily Rong Zhang is a PhD candidate in political science and a 2016 graduate of Stanford Law School. Her research focuses on voter suppression, the protection of minority voters in the redistricting process and the enfranchisement of new voters.
Zhang has previously worked as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Voting Rights Project in New York, where she worked to protect citizens’ basic right to vote. She and her colleagues, for example, sued to stop Kansas from forcing people to provide birth certificates or passports to register to vote. She also helped sue the state of New York to make it change its voter registration deadline to allow more citizens to vote. She explained that in New York, voters have to register at least 25 days before an election.
“That rule is a relic,” Zhang said. “Now, a computer can update a registration list in an instant, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to vote if you didn’t register so early.”
Zhang said she loves the work that she’s doing and that she is driven by the need to protect the democratic process.
“There’s nothing quite like beating bad people who are trying to suppress and dilute votes!” she said.
Reflecting on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Zhang said it reminds her of the League of Women Voters. The organization was one of her clients in numerous lawsuits filed by the ACLU.
“I loved working with the League because I love scrappy and plucky women!” she said. “In Kansas, members of the League had to go around to folks in their homes carrying a portable photocopier to help them register to vote under the law we challenged. There’s also this amazing reminder of the past because the organization was actually created to help women vote when they’d never had the right to vote before.”
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Jennifer Friedmann is a second-year JD candidate at Stanford Law School. This summer, she is at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program working on policy advocacy, research and litigation initiatives in voting rights and redistricting. Her work includes projects related to vote-by-mail ballot signature verification in California and campaign finance influences in state supreme court elections.
Friedmann previously helped organize Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in Appalachian Ohio and rural Kansas. She is also a leader on the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project to address the threats that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to this year’s elections.
“The election this year is so important. We must do whatever we can to keep it safe and equitable,” Friedmann said.
Friedmann said her drive to work on voting rights and electoral issues stems, in part, from the knowledge that voting is a fundamental political right, that citizens have the power over their leaders to demand that they represent them, or be voted out of office.
“The freedom embodied in this right is a deep motivation for me to fight back against infringements on the ability for Americans to vote or to obtain equal representation,” she said.
Friedmann is also encouraged by a progressive vision of the Constitution, which she said is meant to adapt to the lived experience of a growing nation, and therefore can and should accommodate those it initially excluded.
“The 19th Amendment is the only part of the Constitution written by women; its 39 words created the opportunity for half the country to fully participate in civic life. And yet the political strategies employed by prominent suffragists often drew upon racial prejudices,” Friedmann said. “This context must inform our understanding of the 19th Amendment as we strive towards a more inclusive and just society.”
Ria Calcagno is a junior majoring in political science with a minor in computer science. She is co-president of the Stanford Democrats.
Calcagno is a founder of Young Americans for Democracy, a nonpartisan group facilitating civic engagement among the Bay Area’s young voters. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the group organized a voter education festival for young people to register to vote and hear from experts on various issues. Calcagno also co-founded the Stanford chapter of March For Our Lives, which engages and educates the public on the issue of gun violence – voter registration being a major part of that effort. On behalf of the national movement, she helped organize a rally that drew thousands of attendees and signed-up hundreds of voters.
Calcagno’s work is driven, in part, by the understanding that being passionate about any given issue is not enough to create outcomes. Voting, she said, is key.
“Words without votes create little change,” she said. “You can work tirelessly toward a good cause, but if your work isn’t followed up with a vote, your efforts will be significantly hampered by an unsupportive government.”
Calcagno knows this first hand. She said that as a disabled and LGBTQ person, she has witnessed first-hand the impact that civic participation has on peoples’ day-to-day lives, such as when the United States Supreme Court struck down California’s Prop 8, which had limited marriage to one man and one woman, and when the Americans for Disabilities Act was signed into law.
Reflecting on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Calcagno sees it as an opportunity to honor the efforts of the suffragists. She also noted the importance of continuing the work that remains to be done, such as expanding voting rights and ending voter suppression for vulnerable communities.
“In the footsteps of Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and countless others, I work to give every citizen the opportunity to express their voice through voting, until this nation’s government is truly decided by all the people,” Calcagno said.