The Human Rights Warrior

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


18 Comments

My Suffragist Grandmother

Suffrage procession in Minneapolis on May 2, 1914
From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society
Source: thomaslowrysghost.tumblr.com


Election Day is coming up Tuesday and you can be damn sure that I am going to cast my vote.  

I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian and all the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother, Thorina Melquist.  Thorina was an immigrant from Norway whose oldest daughter (my great-grandmother) died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina’s youngest child was only nine months older than my grandmother.  She weaned him in order to nurse my newborn grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but somehow – miraculously – survived.

In addition to farmwork and child-rearing, Thorina was a dedicated suffragist.  She believed strongly in equal voting rights for women and she often participated in demonstrations advocating 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.  The photo at left shows women from several Scandinavian countries in traditional dress marching against inequality and for universal women’s suffrage on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
My Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragist.  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. That’s just shameful.

I love to vote.  In fact, I vote every chance that I can – legally at least. 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 are others there in the voting booth with me.  They are some of the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

Standing with me is 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 it was a remarkable act of courage and endurance.  In telling me about it, he summed it up by saying,

“I voted!  It was a very good day.”

In the voting booth with me are also many of the amputees in Sierra Leone in 2004.  It was common practice during the conflict there for members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to hack off the hands or arms of people with machetes.  Some of them had been targeted during elections so that they couldn’t vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF brutally amputated 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.  Here is a photo I took of a gathering in a village far out in the bush in the Kono district, an area that endured particularly brutal human rights abuses.  Yet now, as the country was slowly emerging from the conflict, the villagers were coming together to discuss the upcoming local election process.

My Suffragette Grandmother

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.”

 

Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone.  Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.

Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.

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.

Every election day is an opportunity.  An opportunity to have a say in the decisions, big and small, that impact the lives of you and everyone around you.  Don’t make excuses, don’t be discouraged.  This is a right that is too valuable to waste.  On Tuesday, please get out there and VOTE!  If you need help finding your polling place, go here:

 

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,598 other followers