In Winter Term 2018, Rachel Bayly and Noah Johnson in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Honors Colloquium at Western Oregon University interviewed Ms. Eliza Canty-Jones about the Nineteenth Amendment centenary and the importance of the vote. Ms. Canty-Jones is the Editor of the Oregon Historical Quarterly and Director of community engagement for the Oregon Historical Society. She views not only the right, but the ability to vote, as crucial to justice and equality in a society. She also points out voting inequalities of the past and present, and expresses the belief that more privileged citizen groups should use their power to be a voice for less privileged groups.
Q: In your view, why is voting important?
Ms. Canty-Jones: There is revolutionary power in the idea that every person has equal ability in shaping our whole society. At its core, a system in which individual people cast votes to determine laws, or representatives who will shape laws, is a system that has the potential to bring about equality and justice. I believe that we need the wisdom of everyone’s experiences and knowledge to make governance decisions that will positively impact people’s lives, now and in the future. The decisions made by government deeply affect all of us, and therefore, we all have to be involved.
I recently heard historian Taylor Branch speak about the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century, and he made the argument that that movement was equal in significance to the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. He emphasized that voting is an inherently nonviolent system of governance. I appreciate the characterization of voting as a nonviolent act, particularly when we see in history (and the present) so many ways that violence can attend changes in governance and power.
Q: What barriers to voting have some Oregon women experienced?
Ms. Canty-Jones: Oregon women have faced many legal barriers to voting, beginning with restrictions in the original constitution that reserved voting rights for white men. These legal barriers are the most obvious, and they are relatively easy to track. Other barriers may be more obscured, and I think it’s worth considering all the different kinds of votes in which citizens engage: votes as elected officials and votes on juries, for example. Women have not held elected office in equal proportion to our population, and I would say that has resulted in a barrier to our casting of votes as elected officials. Women immigrants to Oregon have faced legal barriers to gaining citizenship, keeping them from basic voting rights. Oregon women living in poverty, many without a permanent address, have faced deep barriers to voting, given that they are engaged in survival first and foremost. A society governed by the people requires ensuring that all people have safety, shelter, food, and education; these things must be guaranteed for us to fully use our collective potential to address large challenges such as climate change and to ensure justice and liberty for all.
Q: How have some women used the vote as a tool for social change?
Ms. Canty-Jones: Scholars Tara Watson and Melody Rose have shown the significance of women’s work in the 1973 Oregon Legislative session (see their article here: http://ohs.org/research-and-library/oregon-historical-quarterly/upload/Watson-and-Rose_1973-women.pdf). A group of women legislators and activists used the power they gained through citizen votes to enact social-change legislation. Watson and Rose identify eleven pieces of successful legislation passed in that session, including creation of gender equality in job classifications. In other words, jobs could no longer be advertised specifically for men or women. They also passed legislation related to prostitution, making the purchaser of a sex act equally criminally liable as the seller. Successful legislation in that session also included expansion of access to birth control. As Watson and Rose show in their article, the women’s visionary, steady, and collaborative leadership enabled them to advance significant legislation, despite being firmly in the minority in the House and Senate.
Q: What additional points do you feel are important for us to consider as we commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment?
Ms. Canty-Jones: I believe it is important to recognize the significance of the power-sharing that was created through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The people who had the power to amend the US Constitution to enfranchise women were men. Their act in doing so can be seen as reducing their power while increasing that of women. It’s worth all of us considering the places in which we have disproportionate power — in other words, places where we have more influence and ability to affect social change than others do. How might we use that power to amplify the voices of others, to generate greater equality that will bring us closer to a society that is truly ruled of, by, and for the people?