If the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage was cause for celebration, the guest speakers participating in the annual Tolchin Symposium on August 26 were hardly popping Champagne and shooting fireworks. The panelists taking part in Reckoning with Racial Disparities in Access to Vote: Centennial of Women’s Suffrage Celebration were resolute in the overarching message that there was still much work to be done.
The hour-plus discussion was viewed by more than 100 virtual audience members, hosted by the Schar School’s Gender and Policy Center, and moderated by the director, associate professor Bonnie Stabile. Schar School dean Mark Rozell and George Mason University president Gregory Washington delivered opening welcome remarks.
While much has happened in the way of gender and civil rights since the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, Carrie N. Baker, professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, pointed out that only white women benefitted initially. Women of color would not exercise the right to vote until 1965’s Voting Rights Act brought down the legal barriers state and local officials erected.
“Voter suppression is alive and well and thriving in our country,” said Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2), a Virginia Delegate running for governor. “Black women are just as disenfranchised as their mothers and their grandmothers” from decades ago.
Foy’s primary opponent, State Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-9), was also a featured keynote speaker and recounted the history of treatment of women from the creation of “the marvelous experiment of a representative democracy and the Constitution” that insisted “all men are created equal.” “But it didn’t apply to all the people,” she said. “The promise of the Constitution went unfulfilled and continues to go unfulfilled.”
When asked by Stabile to pick one of the issues that should be considered a priority, Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School’s African American Heritage Center, said the fact that Foy and McClellan were running to be Virginia’s first female governor was a positive indication that there is a movement “redefining what progressive looks like in Virginia.” An old saying, she added, says that “once Virginia falls, so does the South.”
Beverly Guy-Sheftal, professor of Women’s Studies and English at Spelman College, would focus on campus sexual violence. “I would revisit Title IX policy and make very visible what this [White House] administration has done to make young women unsafe.” She warned that matters for women could get worse “with policies that privilege the perpetrator.”
For her priority, Emily Martin, vice president for Education Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said, “everything everyone else has said, but what is really critical is to focus on the makeup of the federal judiciary and make sure it reflects the diversity of America and a diversity of experience” among those sitting at the bench.
Guy-Sheftel advocated for “everyone to take a women’s studies class. It’s transformative and radicalizes [students] around race, class, and gender issues.”
During the question-and-answer session, a self-identified 21-year-old, biracial viewer asked the panel for advice on how to be heard in conversations about race and sexism, in the workplace, classroom, and at home.
“It is a sense of being fearless and accepting that your voice is necessary and important in the room,” said Douglas, firmly. “Be courageous in your commentary.”
To which Stabile added, “I can’t tell you how many times [after a meeting] someone said to me, ‘I’m so glad you said that.’ Then I ask them what they were doing at the time.”
View the recording.