While it might be hard for Colorado College students to imagine a time when American women couldn’t vote, serve in Congress, own property or become doctors, as was true in the 1800s, some remember the 2011 milestone when a ladies’ bathroom opened near the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Arielle Gordon, who will graduate in 2021, was impressed to meet an alumna who regularly finds relief there.
“It’s powerful to see someone who’s doing the work we’ve been talking about in class be candid about what it’s like,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver and a 1979 CC graduate, spoke at the school Monday about the 100th year anniversary of women’s suffrage and parallels to today’s political scene.
Women have come a long way in the past century, she said.
“You know you’ve arrived when you don’t have to walk across the Capitol to use the bathroom,” quipped the 27-year congressional veteran.
As of January, 131 women were seated in the U.S. House — more than at any other time in the nation’s history. But the swell is imbalanced, DeGette added; only 13 Republican women are members of Congress.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of women’s activism in this country,” she said.
Now, as more than a century ago, women are raising their voices in American government, she said. Key House committees, including the appropriations, small business and financial services committees, are headed by women, who are moving women’s issues to the forefront, she said.
DeGette heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations panel. Members have been investigating the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sex scandal, which sent former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to prison for abusing gymnasts while performing medical exams.
DeGette introduced legislation in June that would create an independent blue-ribbon commission to begin reforming the Colorado Springs-based USOPC, but the bill has stalled, she said in an interview.
Her proposal and a compatible reform-mandating act from the Senate are bipartisan and bicameral, she said. But, “It’s not moving right now.”
“I continue to meet with athletes and organizations, and we’re learning as we talk to more athletes that some of these serious, serious sexual assault and harassment allegations have been around for a long time,” DeGette said. “We have to aggressively work to make sure we’re meeting the highest standards.”
She’s gearing up for a hearing Thursday on the treatment of children being detained at U.S. borders and another hearing next week on vaping, with Colorado leading the nation for teen vaping use.
As the first woman to head the subcommittee, she convened a hearing on birth control and family planning, which ironically was a first for the group, even though it oversees women’s health.
“Our numbers may be smaller, but our resolve is much greater,” she said. “We’re really punching our weight in these committees.”
DeGette compares the modern-day surge of women in politics with what happened 100 years ago.
“If there’s one moment or period of time that most reflects the period today, it’s the women’s suffragette movement,” DeGette said.
She cites two primary lessons that can be useful to activists of the 21st century: “One person can make a huge difference” and “Persistence is key; building broad support is a must.”
As for one person making a difference, DeGette points to Susan B. Anthony, who on Nov. 5, 1872, walked into a Rochester, N.Y., voting booth and illegally cast her ballot. She rationalized that the 14th Amendment declared everyone born here as a citizen, and since citizens were allowed to vote, she was exercising her right.
Anthony was arrested, and her actions ignited the suffragette movement, which culminated nearly 50 years later. The House approved the 19th Amendment in January 1918, and the Senate followed suit in June 1919, sending the amendment to the states for ratification. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it on Aug. 18, 1920, establishing the required majority. The Volunteer State’s legislature then sent its certified record by train to Washington, D.C. And early Aug. 26, 1920, the amendment was signed into law.
Much work remains to be done for equality though, DeGette said. Although women make up half of the nation’s workforce, only 33 of the Fortune 500 companies are held by women, she said, and women earn 80 cents for every $1 a man earns — even less for women of color. Of Forbes magazine’s just-released top 100 most-innovative business leaders, one is a woman.
Colorado suffragettes failed in 1877 to gain the right to vote for women, but they didn’t give up, DeGette said.
“They discovered that to enact a real change you had to develop a broad coalition of support,” she said. “It seems obvious to most of us today, but at the time, they didn’t realize that.”
On Nov. 7, 1893, when Colorado voters — all men — were asked for a second time to allow women to vote, 55 percent said yes. Colorado became the second state, behind Wyoming, to grant women voting rights.
“To this day, historians argue which groups should be credited the most — the farm groups, the labor unions, the national suffragettes,” DeGette said. “Regardless, it was everybody.”
Said Maylin Cardoso-Fuentes, who graduated from CC in May and attended Monday’s event, “It’s powerful to keep these things in mind and keep addressing the conversation.”
She cites as today’s top women’s issue the equality gap between white women and women of color.
“Generally, the current movement is pushing all women to believe they have the power to change the state of politics and pushing to run for office,” she said.
Cardoso-Fuentes sought DeGette’s advice after her presentation about how she could get involved.
Pick a party or a passion and volunteer to help advance the identified campaign or cause, DeGette recommended.