In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute hosted a virtual conference series titled “Remember, Reflect, Recommit: Celebrating Women’s Suffrage” from Sept. 17 to Sept. 19. The SNF Agora Institute is an academic and public forum founded in 2017 to promote global democracy, civic engagement and inclusivity.
Junior Sarah Abdullah attended the conference’s “Women Leading the Fight for Civil Rights” webinar on Sept. 17. She found the event to be a timely celebration of women’s rights, especially given the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I really liked how much they highlighted the role of Black women suffragettes in the women’s fight for equality because they not only had to overcome gender barriers but racial ones as well,” she said.
Sept. 18’s webinars included “Women Working Across the Aisle.” The session was moderated by Maryland State Delegate Brooke Lierman and featured Barbara Mikulski, former Maryland senator and longest-serving U.S. congresswoman in history, and Connie Morella, former Maryland congressional representative. Mikulski and Morella, some of the first women active in national office, discussed the role of women in politics, including how they craft policies and collaborate to mend the nation’s political divides.
Lierman opened the event by introducing the panelists.
“Today, Maryland doesn’t have any women representing it in the federal delegation in the House of Senate,” she said. “But we have an incredible legacy of strong women leaders representing us in D.C.”
Because her family was not involved in politics, Mikulski explained that she never expected herself to enter the field. She began her political career as a social worker and community activist, advocating for multiple issues and strengthening grassroots organizations. Currently, Mikulski is a Homewood professor of public policy and advisor to University President Ronald J. Daniels.
“Politics was dominated by potbellied guys who ran political machines. It was a different era. I decided rather than knocking on political doors, I would run for political office,” she said. “I want to emphasize that none of us got here by herself. We sought power not for ourselves but to empower our community.”
Morella recounted an epiphany she had during the 1970s while teaching at a community college. She emphasized the disparate gender roles that existed during that time. Women had limited access to jobs, she said, and had to rely on men for basic responsibilities such as signing a credit card.
“I saw these inequities. It was the women’s movement that put the movement in me. From that moment on, I decided that if I didn't have a seat on the table, I would be on the menu,” she said. “I used my connections with friends to decide to run for the state legislation.”
Lierman then shifted the conversation towards Maryland’s history with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. At the time, Maryland voted against ratification and even sent ambassadors to other states to dissuade them from doing so as well.
According to Morella, women had to work harder to be taken seriously. Adding on to that notion, Mikulski noted that women senators’ first battles were with public opinion. Rather than focusing on the senators’ proposals and agendas, the press would often criticize their appearances and outfits instead.
“When I was running for city council then the Senate, I kept hearing, ‘You don’t look the part,’” Mikulski said. “Women were also often criticized for the way we speak. We’re often too outspoken or soft-spoken. We were continually judged, except by the people and grassroots organizations.”
In closing, both senators gave advice to women who are considering going into politics.
Morella lamented the fact that the number of women in politics has been decreasing periodically.
“We need to do all we can to ensure confidence in women that they can do it and make a difference. The rest of us need to help them with ideas on how to raise money, present themselves and counter the stereotypic notion,” she said.
Mikulski outlined a few steps for women, drawing from her and Morella’s experiences in activism work.
“Get started volunteering in your community or with a political campaign. Get a taste of it. Pick an issue, get to know people and try to take your passion and turn it into policy,” she said. “Build friends and build networks to lay the groundwork for running.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Catherine Pierre, communications director for SNF Agora, explained that the goal of the three-day conference was to explore the history of women’s fight for civil rights to show how important it is for them to participate in policies and promote community service.
“For this particular panel, we wanted to have a discussion about the unique perspective women bring to legislating. Both Senator Mikulski and Congresswoman Morella — one a Democrat and one a Republican — are known for their willingness to work across the aisle to fight for issues that are important to women and to support other female legislators,” she wrote.
Pierre hopes that the audience learned the importance of perseverance from the politicians’ careers, especially for aspiring female politicians.
“Mikulski and Morella stressed the importance of persistence and resiliency despite setbacks,” she wrote. “As Congresswoman Morella said: ‘No guts, no glory!’”
Abdullah, who is on SNF Agora’s Student Engagement Board, believes that there should be more events and opportunities like these to learn about the women’s suffrage movement.
“During high school, we don’t hear a lot about the suffragette movement and history of women’s equality. It’s important to learn about it not just for women but for men as well,” she said. “For anyone trying to break these stigma or barriers, there are a lot of lessons to be learned here.”
Chris H. Park, a member of the SNF Agora Institute's student engagement board, is a News & Features Editor for The News-Letter. He did not contribute reporting, writing or editing to this article.