When American women were finally granted their legal right to vote in 1920, it had taken suffragettes nearly 100 years of ardent, sacrificial, sometimes dangerous protest to earn that victory. Some states had established—then rescinded—voting rights for women, but never before had it been enacted unilaterally across the country. It allowed women to make decisions for themselves that, nearly a century later, we don’t have the luxury of taking for granted.
For women of color, however, the suffrage movement was a double victory because voting afforded them legal leverage that had been twice denied: first because of their race, then because of their gender. Their voting rights weren’t fully realized until years later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, they haven’t always had the support of major parties and organizations they’ve deserved. But, they have persisted.
Given our currently strained political climate, the need for women’s voices is just as important now as it ever was. The strides they’ve made are regularly challenged and that has reenergized focus on the strength of our local communities. Women are leading the changes they want to see in their schools, in their neighborhoods and cities, in their home and adopted states, and in their country. The work that remains to be done has been an inheritance that thousands of women—especially women of color—are proud to accept. In fact, it’s propelled many into office.
This year, 575 women declared their intention to run for a congressional seat or governorship. Thirty-four percent of those candidates are Black, Latina and Asian women. That’s a record figure, almost twice as many as 2016, but it’s significantly small compared to the number of men. Still, progress has been explosive in the past year. That’s promising for two reasons: women voters have more voices to amplify their needs and concerns, and more women are at the forefront of formal political leadership.
Astonishingly, there are still 30 states that have yet to send a woman of color to Congress. Only 39 women have served as governors, only two have been women of color and none have been Black women. If gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wins her campaign in Georgia, she will be the first.
Women’s Equality Day honors the passage of the 19th Amendment in the past, but it also reminds us of our accountability to the present. Women are taking ownership of their rights and communities without asking for permission to do the work that needs to be done. I don’t think we ever really were. We need to help more women understand their leadership capabilities and value and help them step into their own leadership roles and styles. Their time is now. We don’t have another 100 years to spare.