Merlene Davis: Let's all celebrate 90 years of votes for women

I had mixed feelings when I first heard of the celebration planned in Frankfort for the 90th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

Part of me is deeply grateful for those women in the 19th and 20th centuries who persevered through taunts, jeers, threats and decades of being dismissed and ignored to ensure that we women today can cast a ballot for candidates of our choosing.

But another part of me is saddened and a bit put off by that same women's suffrage movement. I'm disappointed with how quickly those same women, mostly white, virtually abandoned efforts to include women of color in their push for enfranchisement once they'd secured that privilege.

Prominent black people lent their voices and support for that suffrage movement, particularly Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell. Although the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote, states, especially southern states, found ways to bar most people of color, male and female, from casting ballots.

It was several more decades before all Asian-American, Native American, Mexican-American and African-American women could vote.

Why didn't the suffrage battle continue until every woman was included?

Eleanor Jordan, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, which is heading up the "Votes for Women Celebration: 90 Years and Counting" in Frankfort on Aug. 26, said the men and women who fought for suffrage lived in a different time.

"We're actually now having a major battle about illegal immigration," said Jordan, who is African-American. "Ninety years from now, someone will look back on these arguments and say, 'What in the world were those people thinking?'"

People of color helped build this country and make it what it is today, she said. That story, and the story of women in Kentucky as a whole, need to be told in months beyond February and March.

In that vein, Jordan said, she and other officials are working on a 10-year Kentucky Women's History Project that Gov. Steve Beshear will announce at the celebration at the state capitol.

One of the three components of the project, she said, will include a commission charged with telling the story of women in Kentucky from suffrage to the present.

"What were the contributions of women of color?" Jordan asked. "Someone knows this and someone has written it down, but we don't have it. Where is the repository for women's history? There is none.

"I want to add her-story to history," she said.

Georgia Powers, the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to the Kentucky Senate, said she plans not only to address the gathering of men and women at the non-partisan rally that day, but to lead a contingent of black women there from Louisville.

"I want us to show up as African-American women," Powers said. "It was not just a few white women who led that women's movement. We have every reason to attend the celebration on the 26th."

Powers' talk will highlight the African-Americans who were involved and the conflicts that arose between abolitionists and members of the women's movement.

Powers said we should focus on how easy it is for all women today to cast a ballot and determine our futures.

"Voting has an effect on all our lives," she said. "If we don't vote, we can't always get the best candidates for the resources that we need."

And that is the balm I will use to soothe my disappointment in human frailty. What battles have I avoided because they seemed too overwhelming?

So make plans to celebrate the men and women who struggled against social norms so that you and your mother, sister, aunt and grandmother could vote. And let's do that together.

"I think society has always tried to dictate what is a white woman's thing or black woman's thing," Jordan said.

"We have to decide what is our thing. Anywhere they are, I'm supposed to be, too. And they need to come to where I am.

"We're going to tell the story and make sure the story is told right," Jordan said. "So when school children learn, they will know the whole story."

Then we can use what happened in the past to prevent a recurrence in the future.