I wasn’t thinking about the “Night of Terror” when I cast my first vote at the age of 18.
I wasn’t thinking about Nov. 14, 1917, when male guards at the Occoquan Workhouse manacled Lucy Burns by her hands to bars above her cell and forced her to stand all night. Or that guards twisted Dorothy Day’s arm behind her back and slammed her twice over the back of an iron bench.
I wasn’t thinking about Dora Lewis, who was led into a dark cell where guards smashed her head against an iron bed, knocking her out. Alice Cosu, Lewis’ cell mate, believing Lewis dead, suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning, according to The Washington Post.
Their crime? They wanted to vote.
The women were among 33 suffragists from the National Woman’s Party who had been arrested while picketing outside the White House for that basic right.
Aug. 18 marks the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which, for the first time, gave women all the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
Growing up, I had a cursory, sanitized understanding of Susan B. Anthony and the movement. And at 18, I was more worried about boys, Madonna and college. I won’t lie and say casting my first vote was thrilling. I don’t remember much about it.
At that age, I had not come to know and appreciate the hundreds of women who had a direct hand in ensuring my right to cast that vote that day and all the many since.
Without those women, I too might have been considered too intellectually inferior, too irrational, too weak and gullible to merit that right and to discharge that responsibility.
Without them, I might have been judged unladylike or just “bad” for even wanting to vote.
Perhaps that’s the fate and ultimate achievement of successful social and civil rights movements — that the heirs enjoy the right or privilege without ever knowing what it cost.
But the many hundreds of women — and men — who fought to give women one of the most basic rights as U.S. citizens and most powerful tools of democracy deserve to be remembered.
And as civil unrest and calls for justice continue around the nation today, we should remember this — march all you want, but if you don’t exercise your right to vote, you have done a disservice to your cause and the people who risked their lives and protested before you.
It’s important to note that in this country, where “all men are created equal” very few were. All men, first meant only landed white men. The landless had to fight, as have women and Blacks since.
This month, as we celebrate the 100-year-anniversary of women’s right to vote, we should reflect on the “Night of Terror,” the inequalities and even the ugly racism in the fight for women to vote.
We should remember what it cost and the debt we owe.
The best way to honor all those who have fought, were beaten and tortured to exercise that right, is simply to vote.
As I cast my votes in the November elections, I’ll be thinking of Burns, Lewis, Cosu and the many hundreds of other women who fought for me and future women at a significant cost to their present.