Ninety-six-year old Fern Chamberlain remembers the day women won the right to vote.
“I walked down the street with my head held high,” said the retired South Dakota social worker.
Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby had signed the 19th amendment to little fanfare, at his home at 8 in the morning.
Leaders of the women’s suffrage movement would have liked a more remarkable ceremony, but they celebrated on their own, while making plans to register 26 million women now eligible to vote.
For the first time, men and women were equal at the ballot box.
Eighty-eight years have passed since then. This week, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the first serious female contender for the presidency, will mark the occasion in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Women now make up more than half of the electorate, but only 60 percent of this demographic voted in 2004’s presidential election.
Patricia Ramos of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is one of the 27 million women who chose not to cast a ballot when Sen. John Kerry challenged President George W. Bush for the presidency. Ramos, a mother of two and legal assistant, said she did not have time. And she's even busier this year.
“Women are shouldering tremendous responsibility, all kinds of pressure,” said Ruth Mandel, head of the Center for the American Woman and Politics and Rutgers University Eagleton Institute, on why female turnout may not be higher.
A history of the women’s suffrage movement
Efforts to overcome barriers to equal rights started in the textile mills town of Seneca Falls, N.Y., when Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first ever women’s rights convention, criticized widely by newspapers across the country.
Three hundred people, including 40 men, converged at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on July 19, 1848 to listen to Stanton describe the rules women lived under as “disgraceful laws” that gave a man “the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property she inherits, and, in the case of separation, the children of her love.”
Stanton, a mother of seven, soon joined forces with Susan B. Anthony, a teacher from Rochester, N.Y., who was frustrated with being paid one-fifth the salary of her male colleagues. Their work together helped pave the future, but many decades would pass before women won the right to vote.
The movement reached a turning point in 1919 when Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a bill that would eventually become the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920 and nicknamed “The Anthony Amendment,” after Susan B. Anthony, who had died 14 years earlier.
Issues facing women today
The struggle today is getting women to exercise their right to vote, according to Lorena Garcia of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a group that supports mandated paid sick leave. In particular, she is trying to reach out to low-income women by encouraging them to register.
“It often comes down to the fact that they are busy, trying to make ends meet, trying to work and also care for their children,” said Garcia, who works in Denver.
Garcia said that most low-income women she tries to register want candidates for public office to talk more about family friendly workplace policies, paid sick days and changes in welfare policy.
“They don’t hear these talked about enough,” she said.
In Arizona, Angela Howard, a mother of twins, says she’s disappointed with politicians. “I generally feel like the candidates address issues that get them the most votes across the board,” she said.
At the top of many women’s agendas are the issues of childcare, education, medical expenses and food prices, said Mandel of Rutgers.
Courting the female vote
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have been trying to connect with women worried about those issues. Obama tells personal stories about being raised by a single mother, and has promised to deliver equal pay and fight against workplace discrimination.
McCain has enlisted former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his senior policy adviser on domestic issues. Fiorina touts McCain’s integrity and character to women voters.
Both candidates have pledged to increase the Child Tax Credit, now $1,000 per child.
But focusing too many campaign issues towards women voters may be a mistake, according to some political experts.
“Many topics that men care about are also those women care about: the war, the economy, the climate, terrorism,” said Robin Lakoff, an expert on language and politics and University of California in Berkeley.
Lakoff said candidates should address voters without reference to gender and stay away from labels such as “soccer mom” and “security mom.”
She thinks one of the reasons millions of women don’t vote is because they can’t relate to candidates. “Imagine if, forever and forever, the candidate you had to choose from never looked like you or gave any indication of understanding you or caring,” she said.
“You might reasonably feel that you didn’t have a dog in the race, now or ever.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy stirred enthusiasm among many female voters who felt they could relate to her. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll shows many of these women are not ready to back another candidate.
The survey shows 52 percent of Clinton supporters will vote for Obama, but 21 percent are planning to vote his Republican Opponent. That leaves 27 percent of women undecided, and up for grabs.
But issues most important to voters this year aren’t specific to women. “It’s going to be a bread-and-butter issues election,” said Mandel, citing jobs, healthcare, and retirement security as top concerns.