The Human Rights Warrior

"There is some good in this world…and it's worth fighting for."


My Suffragist Grandmother

Suffrage procession in Minneapolis on May 2, 1914
From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society

Election Day is coming up quickly and you can be sure that I am going to cast my vote.  I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother Thorina Melquist, a Norwegian immigrant whose oldest daughter died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina weaned her youngest child in order to nurse my grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but miraculously survived. Thorina was a suffragette who participated in demonstrations in Minneapolis for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.

Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragette.  She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota.  Women’s suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.

In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote.  I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 – 50 years after initially rejecting it.   And Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984!  Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted – so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year.  In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries.  In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower.  Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout.

I love to vote.  In fact, I vote every chance that I can (legally). I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable.  But when I’m standing in the voting booth, I feel like there with me are some of the people I’ve met who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.  For example, the young Haitian asylum seeker who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.  He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide’s rooster symbol on the ballot.  It was the first time he had ever voted and, he told me, “It was a very good day.”

Village meeting about 2004 elections
Kono district, Sierra Leone

When I was in Sierra Leone, I met many people whose hands or arms had been amputated with machetes by members of the Revolutionary United Front.  Some of them had been targeted during an elections so that they couldn’t vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF hacked off hands during one election because the government’s slogan was that,”The power is in the hands of the people.”   I visited Sierra Leone in 2004, after the conflict had ended and just prior to the first post-conflict elections.  As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections.  In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and many other countries in the world.  The Saudi government has a history of broken promises on voting rights and, even if they stand by this announcement, women will not be able to vote until the municipal elections of 2015.  Other discriminatory laws are still in effect -most notably the male guardianship system and the prohibition against women driving.  But it is an important step towards full participation in public life that will hopefully lead to other changes for future generations.
Girls in an upcountry village, Sierra Leone
Photo by Rosalyn Park

Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college.   She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn’t see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl.  Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks.  I remember sitting in my grandparents’ darkened living room.  A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed.  It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian told me that the most important thing was to follow my dreams.  “You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be.  But never forget those of us who weren’t able to follow our dreams. Follow your dreams for us.”

So that’s why I never miss the chance to vote.  I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian.  And for everyone else who can’t follow their dreams.

The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women’s Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.  

I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian. 


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