Office of the President

August 26, 2020

To honor the 19th Amendment, we must engage critically with our history 

Ana Mari Cauce

Suzzallo Library at night lit with purple and gold

In honor of the centennial, Suzzallo Library joined buildings and landmarks across the country in being lit with purple and gold on August 26, part of the Forward Into Light Campaign let by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission

As we celebrate 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the granting of universal suffrage to women in the United States, it’s a reminder that such watershed moments are a true reflection of our nation’s complicated relationship with equality. The passage of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of decades of effort by suffragists to ensure women could not just vote, but become full and equal participants in our national life. In doing so, however, many white suffragists were willing to sacrifice progress for Black women. And in the century since, our national myth-making has continued to erase and discount the importance of women of color to the suffrage movement.

The complexity and contradiction inherent in this piece of our history is quintessentially “American.” Our progress toward true equality has rarely followed a straight or simple line, and the same leaders who inspired transformational change also left confounding and difficult legacies. One way we can honor the spirit of their contributions is to reckon honestly with the ways in which they did and did not live up to their ideals and then dedicate ourselves to continuing the equity work left undone. Ultimately, future generations will have the same task of reckoning with the ways in which we both succeed and fail today.

It’s been said that history is written by the victors, but a crucial function of higher education is to interrogate, analyze and critique from more than just that comfortable perspective. In doing so, we develop and teach a more complete understanding of our history. To do this important work, colleges and universities must better engage with and reflect a fuller range of the perspectives of our students, faculty, staff and the communities we serve.

At the UW, we are committed to this work. It is reflected in our faculty’s powerful research on inequities from the criminal justice system to the health care system, and in the students whose lives are changed when they access a world-class education. As an institution, we continue to work for change through our Race & Equity Initiative, and through structural changes that remove barriers to admission and degree completion for our first-generation and BIPOC students. This requires us to look squarely at the ways in which higher education has served to maintain privilege and do the hard work of interrogating systems built on centuries of racism and sexism to uphold the status quo.

In that spirit, on the occasion of the centennial of the 19th  Amendment, the words of the Black suffragist Frances Harper resonate as clearly today as they did in 1893: “I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters.” Through learning and critical engagement with the world, we honor the achievements of Harper and everyone whose work ultimately led to expanded suffrage, enfranchisement and equality. This is the core of our mission and our highest calling.