3 Strategies Today’s Activist Women Share With Their Foremothers

Image courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library
Members of the Grand Rapids League of Women Voters organized a city get-out-the-vote parade in 1924. Grand Rapids Herald, Sept. 9, 1924.

The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has inspired a fresh wave of women’s movements.

Both one day and one year after his inauguration, millions of people across the globe participated in the first and second women’s marches, demonstrating support for causes such as equal pay, safe workplaces and campuses, reproductive rights and a stronger social safety net.

It’s no wonder “feminism” became Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017. After women and girls who had been sexually harassed and assaulted found their voices and proclaimed, #MeToo, dozens of powerful male abusers saw their careers collapse. Bill O'Reilly and Harvey Weinstein are ruined. Former sports doctor Larry Nassar will spend the rest of his life behind bars. An all-time high of 106 women are serving in Congress, and a record number are running to join them.

This surge in activism stands out, but it also echoes the efforts of women nearly a century ago after the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained full suffrage rights. For today’s women’s marchers and online activists to succeed where their foremothers did not, they must translate public enthusiasm into smart electoral politics.

Communicate, Run And Vote

Today’s Twitter campaigns, bids for public office and voter turnout drives are modern-day counterparts to the strategies newly enfranchised female voters used in the 1920s to strengthen democracy and right social wrongs.

As I explained in my book, “The Big Vote,” the League of Women Voters invented the nonpartisan get-out-the-vote strategy in the early 1920s by organizing advertising and educational efforts to encourage citizens to become more active and informed voters.

The league, a nonpartisan organization of women concerned about government corruption, child labor and an array of social issues, attracted many former suffragists who were determined to see women use their new right to vote.

Today’s female activists have embraced a three-pronged strategy pioneered by their foremothers that stresses modern communications, office-seeking and voter turnout.

1. Harness modern media.

Today’s organizers are savvy Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users. A century ago, female activists excelled at using the latest communications technologies of their day – radio broadcasts, telephones and glossy magazines.

In 1928, for example, the league partnered with the fledgling NBC radio network to bring its “Citizenship School of the Air” to 15 million listeners. At a time when callers couldn’t dial direct, telephone operators – an overwhelmingly female labor force – reminded election-day callers in 1924 to be sure to vote. Articles and ads in women’s magazines such as the Ladies’ Home Journal nudged millions of its female readers to take advantage of their newfound right to vote.

2. Run for office.

In the 1920s, women began to run for school boards, local treasurer and clerk positions, state legislatures and even for Congress. Most lost but a few won, including Emma J. Harvat, Iowa City’s first female mayor, and Soledad Chacon, New Mexico’s first female secretary of state. Today, increasing numbers of women are interested in running for office. So far, nearly 400 have filed or are expected to soon seek House seats, and 50 are beginning or getting ready to launch Senate bids, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

3. Get out the vote.

The 2018 Women’s March launched a voter registration drive its organizers are calling #PowertothePolls. It echoes efforts of a century ago, when the league enlisted the aid of some 3,000 other civic, religious, business, media and community organizations in get-out-the-vote campaigns. Together, they worked to inform both women and men about the importance of casting their ballots.

Then, like now, female activists realized that voting matters.