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Constitutional Law,
Civil Rights

Sep. 17, 2020

‘We the People’: 100 years of perspective on the 19th Amendment

It is no secret that in 1776, when the Founding Fathers wrote the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “We the People” did not include women. Sixty years later, 300 people, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

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Torrance Courthouse

Nicole Chollett Bershon

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

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Julie R. F. Gerchik

Partner, Glaser Weil Fink Howard Avchen & Shapiro LLP

Email: Jgerchik@glaserweil.com

Julie is a partner in the firm's Litigation Department.

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Samantha P. Jessner

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

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Jennifer Leland

Of Counsel, Robins Kaplan LLP

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Serena R. Murillo

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

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Elizabeth A. White

Judge (Ret.), Los Angeles County Superior Court

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Stanley Mosk Courthouse

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Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

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Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

It is no secret that in 1776, when the Founding Fathers wrote the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, "We the People" did not include women. Sixty years later, 300 people, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, attended the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

Ratification was slow, but in 1916 the tide began to turn. The suffragettes held their first Presidential Nominating Convention, and the first woman was elected to Congress, Jeannette Pickering Rankin. The next year -- 129 years after the ratification of the Constitution -- only 10 states had granted women the right to vote. In 1919, Congress approved the 19th Amendment, and it was ratified on August 18, 1920.

In the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, much has changed, yet much remains to be done. This centennial anniversary provided an opportunity to consider the history of the amendment, the current status of women, and recognition of not only gains in the inclusion, success, and equity of women, but also ample room for continued change.

While ratifying the 19th Amendment was undoubtedly a difficult task, it is important to address that it did not deliver voting rights to all women. Full electoral equality was still decades away for many women of color, as the 19th Amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex but did not address other forms of discrimination. Therefore, many states and the federal government continued to deny the right to vote to all but Caucasian women.

African-American women remained disenfranchised as the amendment did not eliminate state laws designed to keep Black Americans from the polls via poll taxes and literacy tests. Similarly, other women of color were precluded from voting based on laws defining citizenship.

Indigenous women could only vote if they applied for citizenship, and their applications were approved by the federal government. With passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, American-born Native American women gained citizenship, but until 1962 were still denied the right to vote based on such contrived grounds as claims that residence on a reservation precluded state residency for voter qualification.

Asian-American immigrant women were excluded from voting until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed them to gain citizenship, and Spanish speaking Latinas had to wait until a 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act that prohibited discrimination against so-called "language minorities."

In reality the 19th Amendment delivered voting rights to primarily white, middle- and upper-class women while women of color continued to be disenfranchised.

It is hard to ignore the parallels between the history of the 19th Amendment and the inequities America is facing today at the intersection of gender and race, especially when considering that this past August also marked the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the authors of this article, all of whom are involved in the sponsoring organizations, began to discuss ways to mark this milestone, while also acknowledging that it was not a centennial celebrated by all women. These discussions led to an agreement among the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the National Association of Women Judges, and the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles to jointly sponsor a speaker series featuring female trailblazers who have excelled in politics, law, entertainment, sports, journalism, academia, the judiciary, and corporate boardrooms.

The planning committee soon discovered one silver lining of the pandemic -- the willingness of outstanding speakers from around the country to participate in virtual programming. Another upside to using a virtual platform was the ease by which viewers could participate, as reflected in hundreds of people who registered. The numbers may also underscore how broadly the series resonated. (If you missed any or all of the discussions, LACBA will offer the entire series via podcast, beginning in October 2020).

Notwithstanding the diversity of life experiences, ages, sexual orientation, gender identities, race or profession among the speakers, common themes emerged throughout the discussions. We summarize some of the highlights below.

The Weaponization of Female Ambition

Several speakers discussed the weaponization of ambition as it relates to women. Specifically, the question was posed, why is ambition a positive attribute when describing a man, but considered a negative when describing a woman? This dichotomy was exposed in the national discussion surrounding the selection of a Democratic vice presidential candidate. Just as Sen. Kamala Harris has been criticized for being "too ambitious," so too was Stacy Abrams for publicly stating that she "would make an excellent running mate." Our panelists were not alone in this sentiment, as Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, recently asked during an appearance on MSNBC, "what vice president in U.S. history wasn't ambitious?"

The panelists agreed that there is nothing wrong with women having ambition and certainly no need for women to apologize for ambition. This is especially true when a woman's ambition reflects a commitment to achieving something bigger than herself. Female ambition should be celebrated, particularly when it creates the kind of leader people want to follow rather than cross the street to avoid, as one speaker noted.

Allies and Sponsorship

Another common theme was the importance of having allies and sponsors, as distinguished from mentors. One speaker described the role of an ally as that of a personal chief marketing officer. An ally or sponsor recommends women for new positions, elective races or promotional opportunities. She or he will not only present new opportunities to a woman but will also provide support to ensure her future success once in the position. The role of an ally or sponsor transcends traditional notions of mentorship. An ally fights alongside you in the trenches, taking you with them as they climb up and out. An ally is a coworker in your quest for success.

All speakers recognized that no successful woman gets there alone. Some attributed their success to the support of other women, while others echoed former Secretary of State Madeline Albright who famously claimed, "there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." Several politicians attributed their electoral success to female voters and praised the support of colleagues, both female and male, once in office. Among others, State Controller Betty Yee was mentioned repeatedly by her fellow Sacramento colleagues during the August 11th panel discussion as a consistent source of wisdom, support, and advice.

Many speakers also described receiving valuable advice from others who had come before and helped prepare them for the inevitable challenges and unfair criticisms which often come on the heels of being elected or promoted. There seemed to be a consensus that the best way to handle this phenomenon so aptly described by one of the most successful female entertainers and businesswomen of all time, Taylor Swift: "haters gonna hate, hate, hate" was to do exactly as the song title instructed and "shake it off."

Who is your Jana Payne?

Senator Holly Mitchell recounted a story about a woman named Jana Payne. When Sen. Mitchell was running for office, a woman approached and introduced herself. The woman, Payne, aware that Sen. Mitchell was a single mom and recognizing the challenges of raising a child alone while campaigning for office, volunteered to pick him up from aftercare and drive him home. Senator Mitchell marveled that this woman identified what she needed to be successful before even she did and provided an unconventional, yet essential, source of support in her efforts to win political office.

This theme of developing, as one speaker characterized it, "your own personal board of directors," composed of people like Jana Payne, who offer to help without being asked, continued throughout the discussions. Our speakers described their respective boards as including friends and supporters (both male and female) who were familiar with their strengths and weakness and with whom they could be their authentic selves exposed and vulnerable -- but who would also recognize what they needed to be successful even when they might not.

Comfort with Ambiguity

While acknowledging the myriad challenges posed by COVID-19, there was also a common recognition that such challenges create opportunities for reinvention. Several speakers discussed that in these days of uncertainty, it is essential to become comfortable with ambiguity as uncertainty breeds innovation. In such an environment, women can travel untraditional paths to success because the road to success may not necessarily be a straight line.

Creating a Pipeline

Another common theme was the importance, as one executive described it, of "sending the elevator back down for others to get on." A recurring topic of discussion was the need for and the mechanics of creating a pipeline of capable women as potential successors. The panelists described being intentional about hiring, urging other women to apply for positions, run for office, or apply to the bench. Having female role models was described as imperative as it is difficult for women to reach for something they cannot see. As one judge described, "if you can see it, you can be it!"

Speaking Up

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson reminded viewers that our vote is our voice, and our voice is in our vote. Women make up 52% of the population and comprise a powerful voting bloc. As she stated, "[w]e hold up half the sky and if we're not at the table, we're probably on the menu." Senator Jackson disabused women of the idea that their votes don't effect change by recounting how she lost an election in 2008 by 852 votes out of the 414,000 cast. She told this story to underscore what a mistake it is to think your vote does not matter. The senator also talked about how, historically, women's critical view of themselves have prevented them from seeking opportunities that men didn't think twice about applying for. She reiterated that women hold themselves to higher standards when evaluating their qualifications for certain positions and shared some of her favorite quotes, including, "women will have achieved equality when a mediocre woman can get as far as a mediocre man." She encouraged us to speak up, be assertive, and foster collaboration amongst women.

Indeed, these discussions reflected how the collaborative efforts of women from diverse backgrounds could create a powerful platform for conversations with female trailblazers making their mark in their respective fields. Though much has been accomplished, much remains to be done because, as Senator Jackson reminded us, in a perfect world, there would be no need to convene this speaker series.

Where do we go from here?

The speaker series coincided with a summer of both great turmoil as vast injustices were laid bare throughout America, as well as historical achievements, as the first Black and Indian-American woman was selected as a major party vice presidential candidate. Many of us continue to struggle with our emotions, our desire to have our voices heard, and a need to channel pain in a productive way. The speaker series provided a forum for successful women to share their experiences and provide much-needed advice, while highlighting the efforts of those who are working behind the scenes and out in front to give true meaning to the phrase "we the people," as inclusive of everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability.

Our panelists underscored the significance of the19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act while questioning whether women and people of color have achieved true equality in making laws and implementing policies that directly impact them. Many speakers felt that this marked the beginning of a period of dramatic change and that while it is important to celebrate what was achieved by the passage of the 19th Amendment, it is equally important to recognize that women and people of color have a long way to go in terms of achieving equality, equity, and inclusion. Their words underscore that we will not be truly successful until all the voices which make up the rich chorus of our democracy are heard equally. As the great Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South reminded us, "what the people want is very simple -- they want an America as good as its promise." 

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Ben Armistead

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