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The 19th Amendment and the Olden Days

Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. You probably know what that was, but I’ll bet that’s only because Sarah Palin made some rather clever comments about ewoks in marking that date. Come on, a week ago today, how many of you would have correctly answered an open ended question like “what is the 19th amendment to the constitution?” I’m not sure I could have done it, and I’m a former lawyer and an “A” student. I wouldn’t have been alone, either–most of us think the right to vote comes from the Bill of Rights. (A majority of us also can’t identify which century the American Revolution took place in.)

Perhaps if it had been a multiple choice question: What is the 19th Amendment to the Constitution?

a. the one that says we can bear arms.

b. the one that says we can arm bears.

c. um…maybe something about Panama?

d. the one giving women the right to vote.

as long as you didn’t add a realistic sounding e, such as “the one giving black people the right to vote,” I’d have nailed that one on a quiz. But I”m ashamed to say that before yesterday, I might easily have failed to give the right answer to an open question, and if you asked it backwards—which amendment to the constitution gave women the right to vote? I know I’d have failed. And that’s shameful. 90 years. 90 years. Within the last century, during both of my grandmothers’ lifetimes, people were arguing about whether or not women should be allowed to vote. It’s astonishing. The 19th amendment should be tattoo’d on the inside of my arm, or at least on the inside of my skull. 90 years.

So of course I took advantage of this opportunity to teach my kids something important about rights, women’s issues and the importance of the franchise, right?

Well, no. Not exactly, no. Um, no.

I thought about it. I’m still thinking about it. I’ve said before that I think it’s important to address these issues head on with kids (self-referential-link alert). I do talk to my kids about race and racism. I talk to them about women who work, mommies who work, women doctors, women in hard hats, women taxi drivers. But feminism itself—or rather, the suffragette roots of feminism—I find more difficult. I don’t expect them to be blind to differences of sex. And I’m afraid that three of them would tell you (my 4-year-old son with a sad sigh) that pink is a girl color, while their older brother would deny it in that kind of staunch, no-it’s-not sort of way that tells me that he’s saying what he knows I want him to say. It’s not so much that they see any activity as for boys or girls only, but more that they can tell that there are boy and girl versions of similar things–pink laces for hockey skates, say.  They know there’s something going on there.

But I believe, maybe naively, that it hasn’t yet occurred to them that there’s any reason a girl couldn’t do any thing a boy could do. And I’m afraid to tell them. Because even though I’m clinging to the idea that my daughters believe they can grow up to play hockey in the Olympics before retiring to run their candy store, just like their brother (he’ll be a pilot on the side), I’m afraid that if I tell them how recently it would have been impossible to achieve those dreams, they’ll look around and notice that, for the most part, it kinda looks like it’s impossible here, too.

The dentist is a man. The orthodontist? Man. Firefighters? Men, men, men. Look through the doors in daddy’s office and there are all the other daddies: Trevor’s daddy and Eli’s daddy and Ben’s daddy and Carly’s daddy and Tucker’s daddy and oh, wait, there’s Katie’s mommy! Hooray, hooray for Katie’s mommy! But here is the man come to inspect the house, and the man come to check the chimney, and the man who delivers the packages. Where are all the women? Oh, honey, check the carpool line.

I know that, statistically, this isn’t reflective of society. I know that it’s even a sign of a privileged section of society: the intersection of stay-at-home-avenue and opt-out lane.  But I know, too, the part that the kids really haven’t noticed yet: the fact that the dentist is surrounded by assistants: all women. Ditto the orthodontist. A woman answers the phone at the fire department, and there are a few other women to be found in Daddy’s office: all assistants of one kind or another. Pretty soon they’re going to notice that none of those women runs the candy store. I can turn on CSPAN and point to woman after woman after woman, but how much is that really going to counteract what we really see on a daily basis?

Maybe when they get older, less muffled in the world of babies and toddlers and SAHMS and sugary-voiced pre-school teachers, it gets different. And maybe, probably, I’m over-reacting, caught up myself in a debate that I’m not sure will loom as large once my children are a little older, about whether to work, how much, how hard. But no, I didn’t tell my kids, yesterday, that a few short generations ago, I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote, or that there was a time when I couldn’t own property, or that until 1972—after I was born, mind you—the university around the corner, the one whose hockey team they follow with such devotion, didn’t admit women at all. I’m not sure they’d even believe it. I probably should have. I should have baked a cake and hung banners in the street. At the very least, I should manage not to forget the name and number of the amendment that changed so much.

And “the one that gave the vote to black people?” That would be the 15th. Ratified 140 years ago last February.

Image courtesy the North Carolina Collection and the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.

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