Shaking the Foundation of Privilege: The Fight for a Fair Vote, from Seneca Falls to the 2018 Midterms

In the 19th century, ample water and rich soil made Seneca Falls a town full of thriving farms and optimistic people. Idealism took hold in the many calls for progressive political reform and utopian community-building, as residents of the small New York town committed to causes like the abolition of slavery, harmony between indigenous people and settlers, and even the dismantling of church hierarchy.

The deadline to register to vote in the Arizona primary election is July 30.

Seneca Falls’ flowing streams also gave it the water power to build industry at a time when industry was transforming family structure. Children could be assets to farm families that needed more hands to share the labor of harvests and animal husbandry, but in industrial settings, they could be a liability, bringing costs to the home in the form of food, clothing, medical care, and education. Many women tried to avoid pregnancies by using the family planning methods of that era, which included spermicidal douches and abortion, as well as pills and tonics advertised for the “stoppage of nature” and other veiled references to contraception. As women became less involved in childbearing, their roles in the home — and society — began to change as well.

Water mill, New York State. Photo: Wikipedia.

Amid those influences, the women’s rights movement coalesced in Seneca Falls, spearheaded in large part by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were reformers who met through the anti-slavery movement but turned their attention to the emancipation of women. Stanton evoked the parallels between those causes in a speech she gave before the New York Legislature, in which she decried how color and sex had put many “in subjection to the white Saxon man.” Thus, from the beginning, reproductive freedom and women’s rights were closely linked, and they were connected with anti-racism and other social justice movements.

Mott and Stanton convened the first women’s rights convention on July 19, 1848 — 170 years ago this week. With nearly 200 supporters in attendance, the convention adopted a 12-point resolution that included a demand for women’s right to vote. Historians mark the event as the birth of the women’s suffrage movement.

The movement’s demands would take time to be met, however. As Mott observed, “Any great change must expect opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.” It would be another 71 years before women’s suffrage was secured in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, but even that left many women unable to vote. Further struggles secured the vote for African Americans, people with disabilities, and many more who had historically been disenfranchised. For Arizonans, another noteworthy anniversary this week is the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision 70 years ago, on July 15, 1948, that recognized Native Americans’ right to vote.

Fast-forward to today, and it would be comforting to think that all of those struggles are history — that gender, race, and other markers of identity no longer bar adult citizens from voting. Unfortunately, that isn’t entirely the case. Like access to contraception or abortion, access to the ballot box is technically protected by law, but it is under persistent attack by lawmakers who want to make it difficult or impossible for a lot of people. Here are some of the obstacles to voting many still face today — and that often impact women and minorities disproportionately, sometimes in swing states where voter suppression can have a considerable impact on national elections:

Unfortunately, these are just some of the barriers that stand in the way of a fair vote. Others include restrictions on voter registration drives, limits on early voting, and a lack of protection against harassment and misinformation campaigns — tactics that can turn voters away by making them feel intimidated or confused.

To help voters protect their rights, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona (PPAA) maintains information at on how to:

  • Register to vote
  • Identify your voting district and representatives
  • Cast early, regular, and provisional ballots
  • Report threatening treatment, false information, or other problems on election day

For many voters, the 2016 election was a wake-up call, as they faced an incoming president and administration that quickly became known for shaming women, bashing immigrants, feeding anti-Muslim hatred, and rolling back transgender rights. As Kelley Dupps, PPAA’s director of public policy, put it, the election of Donald Trump unleashed “a whirlwind in which we found ourselves focused on survival, protecting our most vulnerable, and fighting back.”

Sign at Tucson Women’s March, January 2017. Photo: Anna

From the time of Trump’s inauguration, when millions marched across the nation in protest, people have set their sights on the 2018 midterms as an opportunity to reclaim their power. “Grab Them by the Midterms,” a phrase that threw Trump’s notorious “Grab their pussy” comment back at his party and voter base, became a slogan that went viral on buttons, T-shirts, protest signs, and social media. What has been called the “Trump effect” has inspired thousands of women to run for local, state, and federal offices — including a record 298 running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The early feminists who assembled in Seneca Falls 170 years ago called voting a “sacred right,” and many of the women who took up the fight for that freedom faced imprisonment and assault for their advocacy. Nevertheless, they persisted — to paraphrase Mitch McConnell’s now infamous remark about Elizabeth Warren — and they did so even when they realized their hopes would never be answered in their own lifetime. In fact, only one signatory to the Seneca Falls resolutions, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, lived to see the day, in 1920, when a woman’s right to vote was added to the Constitution in the 19th Amendment.

There has been a long and continuing fight for a fair vote, reminding us of the importance of every election. And there has been a whirlwind of crises and abuses in front of us, reminding us of the importance of this one in particular. The time to fight back is now.

The Arizona primary election will be held August 28, and the midterm election will be held on November 6. The deadline to register to vote is July 30 for the Arizona primary and October 9 for the midterm. Voters can get to know PPAA’s endorsed candidates in its “Meet Our Candidates” interviews and check in regularly on the PPAA website, Facebook page, and Twitter to know the issues in this year’s election.