Story and photo by Devin Fisher
“Don’t forget to be a good boy” and “vote for suffrage.”
A 24-year-old Tennessee legislator named Harry Burns surprised observers Aug. 18, 1920, when he followed his mother’s wishes, conveyed in a letter he carried in his pocket, by casting the deciding vote ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. The amendment was officially adopted Aug. 26, 1920.
Rosemary Harris Lytle shared Burns’ story, along with several other key events that led to the passing of the amendment, as she urged those in attendance to “remember our foremothers and our forefathers” during the Fort Carson Women’s Equality Day celebration Aug. 26 at the Elkhorn Conference Center.
“We owe a debt to all of them,” said Lytle, who has been involved with issues of diversity, civic equity and inclusion for more than 20 years as a newspaper journalist, diversity trainer, and currently serves as the president of the Colorado Springs National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We know that on this day we celebrate because this is when women finally got the right to vote,” she said.
Despite all the democratic ideas that served as the foundation of the nation and inspired the American Revolution, only a minority of the residents of this country were actually entitled to vote, Lytle said.
“More than half of the adult population was disenfranchised,” she said.
Lytle noted while most people are aware of “the brutal reality that slaves of African descent” were not allowed to vote, some may not know that indentured servants, apprentices and free Black men were also not allowed to vote. White men who didn’t own property and anyone who had been convicted of a crime or was considered to be mentally incompetent, regardless of gender, were not afforded the right to vote.
“That’s a long list, and if you can believe it, it is that last category (considered to be mentally incompetent) in which they put women,” she said. “The reason that women weren’t allowed to vote was because we were presumed to be incapable of sound reason.”
Lytle shared the stories of three women pioneers who she said dispel such beliefs.
She spoke of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to become a physician in this country. The students at Geneva College in New York voted to let her attend medical school because they thought her application was a prank from a rival college, Lytle said.
Sarah Breedlove had a vision to recruit, train and then dispatch an army of women entrepreneurs selling hair products in their communities. People laughed at her for having this vision, Lytle said, because she was a laundress thought to have no skills and no money. Better know as Madame C.J. Walker, Breedlove became the first female African-American millionaire in the U.S.
Deborah Samson so desperately wanted to join the military that she convinced a sergeant that she “was a man, was ready to fight, ready to defend and ready to win,” Lytle said. A Soldier in the Continental Army, she received many commendations for her military service.
“We should be proud of them … their legacy is our badge of honor,” she told the women in attendance.
The Army has a lot to be proud of when it comes to integrating women, said Col. Jeffrey L. Bailey, 4th Infantry Division deputy commanding general for Operations, who concluded the observance sponsored by the 4th Inf. Div. Equal Opportunity Office. He said the Army “led the way” with women’s rights when the service promoted its first female officer to the rank of brigadier general in
1970; the first female was promoted to the Army’s highest rank, four-star general, last year.
“As we look at what has happened across our military now, women are integrated into over 90 percent of the (military occupational specialties),” Bailey said. “So with the exception of a very few places, we have recognized that not only do women have the right, they have the capability and even the responsibility to serve alongside men.”
He noted that more than 20,000 women have served alongside men in combat.
“When we are there (Iraq and Afghanistan) an (improvised explosive device) does not know gender, race or MOS. We’re all serving under the same dangers as we work over there in support of our nation.”