Centennial of Women's Right to Vote
by Toni Denis
Geraldine “Jerry” Emmett, founder of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area, used to love to tell the story of how she went to the voting booth with her mother, the first woman to cast a ballot in Gilbert, Arizona.
Women and men alike cheered as her mother left the booth. Emmett was six when the 19th Amendment was signed into law in 1920. She died in 2019 at 104, just a year short of the 100th anniversary of that day, when women’s political voices began to be heard across this country.
In the past four years marches for women’s rights, the #MeToo movement and the reawakening of the Equal Rights Amendment with its ratification by a 38th state have signaled a revival of the drive toward gender equality. Larger numbers of women are running for office, and winning. That leads to the issues that women care about being taken more seriously, whether that’s equal pay, laws against sexual harassment, or the right to control their own bodies. Male politicians who joke about women’s looks, careers, periods or even rape risk losing their elected positions when women respond by organizing and voting them out.
With such momentum nationwide, it’s no surprise that women in Yavapai County are interested in celebrating the 19th Amendment. Every January more than 200 show up for the Women’s March. Last August a coalition of local women’s groups organized a 19th Amendment March and Celebration on the Courthouse Square. Later that month a group of area women carpooled to attend a 19th Amendment celebration on the Arizona State University West Campus in Glendale.
The celebration was organized by a five-year-old group, AZ Celebrates the 19th Amendment. Its nonprofit board is composed of women representing, among others, the Arizona League of Women Voters, Arizona Business and Professional Women, Sisterhood Extravaganza and the National Organization for Women. The final celebration will be online on the centennial, August 23, 2020.
Women speakers of note have addressed the gathering, including Katie Hobbs, a candidate for Secretary of State at the time (she later won), and Kathy Hoffman, Superintendent of Public Instruction. One of the highlights every year is The Parade of Runners, in which women candidates file through an auditorium and onto the stage to introduce themselves and tell the crowd what they’re running for and why. It exemplifies another goal of the group: to support women candidates who support women’s rights.
President Carol Comito of AZ Celebrates the 19th Amendment said the group's main celebration is always around the time of the 19th Amendment anniversary, but the group has held a variety of other events as well, such as Women’s-Rights Bingo with trivia questions, and a movie series that featured such fare as 9 to 5 on women in the workplace, Miss Representation on sexism in the media, and The Long Shadow on the legacy of slavery and impact of white privilege.
“We do events to bring awareness to women’s issues,” Comito said. Because of the pandemic, “we’re going to do the main event this year the same, but virtually. We’ll have a keynote speaker, sponsors, all our women candidates in the state parading across the stage — it could be up to a hundred — and we have had as many as 400 attendees.”
Last year Judy Stahl, now candidate for the State House in Legislative District 1, was in the Parade of Runners and spoke about her intention to run for office. “I loved being with all these wonderful women who cared about it,” Stahl said. “When I think about the 19th Amendment, I think of my grandmother, who was born in 1895, married with a young daughter at the time the 19th Amendment passed, and what an incredible inspiration she was and what it must have meant to have the right to vote. It just makes me appreciate how long people struggled to bring it about. People were working, working, working, and were arrested as they fought for it, for a hundred years.”
Maria Lynam, current chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area, said the celebration has special meaning for her, too, in remembering her grandmother’s first vote.
“My maternal grandmother became a widow in 1952 at the age of 63,” Lynam said. “To my knowledge she never voted until she moved in with us later that year. My father was very civic-minded and encouraged my grandmother to register and vote. It was a big deal. He took a day off from work and drove her to the county seat so she could register. She dressed up and wore her best black coat. Whatever documents were needed were in her black handbag. Her formal education ended in second grade and she was self-taught. Always proud of her handwriting, she would study the ballot and ask my parents many questions about the candidates. When she showed up at the polls, she wore her black coat adorned with sable pelts, the mouths clipped to a hidden eye. In her pocket she had a small piece of paper with her choices written down. She wanted to get it right!”
That impression of how meaningful her grandmother’s first vote was to her stayed with Lynam, and she’s been an activist for women’s rights ever since.
Maria Lynam is one of six area women leaders we've selected from the many women who lead in ways large and small to build and maintain our vibrant, vital communities. In this way 5enses is proud to join the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment.
The League of Women Voters of Central Yavapai County will be hosting a celebration of the centennial on Zoom August 12, 3-5pm, featuring journalist Jana Bommersbach and discussion of the role Arizona played in the ratification of the 19th amendment. Contact for info and link.