Susan Silk is a powerhouse of energy and entrepreneurship, and she packed the house at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s soup-and-sandwich series last week for her talk about the ratification of the 19th Amendment, with its 100-year anniversary coming up on Aug. 26. She began by sharing that the museum and the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard are collaborating to celebrate the enactment of the amendment giving, as Silk says, “women the power to vote. Not just the right, but the power. We’re also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the League of Women Voters, and their year of activities devoted to remembering the folks that fought the fight, and thinking about what’s next.”
Silk was a print and television journalist for decades in Detroit, Boston, and Chicago. She then became an entrepreneur, starting a consulting business to help nonprofits, government agencies, and the like influence public behavior. She moved to the Island full-time in 2008.
She traces the impetus to become an active member of the LWV to her Aunt Marge, whom Silk feels passed the torch down to her. “All of us have benefited from activism by women in the past,” Silk said. “Now it’s our turn this year. Every one of us in this room has always had the right to vote.”
Progress toward a more perfect democracy is often messy, and the 19th Amendment didn’t break down voting barriers for all women. Not all women gained equal access to voting. LWV member Deborah Medders recounted that it wasn’t until 1924 that Native American women were able to vote. It was another 15 years for Chinese American women, after World War II for Japanese American women, and soberingly, black women only achieved the right to vote in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
But as the story from the Hill posted on the League of Women Voters’ website, “This Women’s Equality Day, stop romanticizing the 19th Amendment” states, “Even today, there is more work to be done … We have seen countless attacks on the right to vote — too often targeting racial minorities, as has been the case throughout our country’s history … We have seen rollbacks to early voting, unjust voter purges, and strict voter photo ID laws that make it harder for young people, women, people of color, and individuals with low incomes to register and exercise their right to vote.”
Bari Boyer, who came to the soup luncheon, shared a recent firsthand experience that hit close to home: “I was working as a legal monitor at the polls a few years back, and my Republican counterpart’s goal was to suppress the vote. My goal was to make every vote count. People were being sent away for not having included their middle name, or being told they were at the wrong place … Just a few years ago in Worcester, suppression was alive and well.”
Silk described what is being done on the Island to ensure the right to vote. “The League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard’s yearlong celebration is called Honoring History/Making Progress. Throughout the year we’re holding special events to ensure Islanders look back at the suffragette movement, and perhaps more importantly, look forward. The suffragettes marched, shouted, screamed, and were jailed for years before success,” Silk said. “These were women who were expected to be silent, serve meals, have babies, be good wives, and smile quietly. And they took to the streets. The suffragettes’ movement made a revolution happen.”
In mid-May, the LWV is holding an assembly for high school students from MVRHS and the Charter School. The presentation will focus on the progress they have benefited from in Title IX, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. It is perhaps best known for leveling the playing field, so to speak, in the sports arena. The goal of the event, Silk says, is “to make sure that every student at a high school level understands what Title IX did for them. For the kids to walk out of the assembly going, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”
The LWV has also formed a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. On behalf of the LWV, Silk urged merchants to use their storefront windows to dress their mannequins, male or female, in the white of the suffragettes, with sashes provided by LWV members.
She also rallied the audience at the soup luncheon to pledge to march with the League of Women Voters in the Fourth of July parade, dressed in white and again wearing the sashes the members provide. On May 31, the LWV will partner with the museum for a tea for women in public service — elected, appointed, employed, or retired. The point is to say thank you for their service and work.
Ultimately, Silk concluded that she wanted us to figure out how to make the sky the limit for the next generation and the generation after that. While she acknowledges that the whole year is about incremental progress, she also believes, “We can look ahead and think about what would we like our grandchildren to take for granted that was never imaginable in our lifetime.”
Visit the Martha’s Vineyard League of Women Voters website. They can also be reached at 508-693-3671.