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Lecture featuring NPR executive discusses women’s right to vote in 2020

| Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Two Notre Dame political scientists discussed the 19th Amendment and women’s role in elections over the past 100 years during a Monday evening lecture called “The 19th Amendment and the Myth that All Women Vote the Same.” The discussion was part of the Bridging the Divide lecture series sponsored by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. 

Gabrielle Penna | The Observer
Speaker Kenya Young, class of 1994, and executive producer of the Morning Edition at NPR, along with Notre Dame professors Christiana Wolbrecht and Dianne Pinderhughes led a discussion regarding the history of women’s voting rights in America.

The moderator Kenya Young, Notre Dame 1994 graduate and executive producer of “Morning Edition” at National Public Radio (NPR), opened the discussion by addressing the session’s aim.

“Now more than ever, it is time for us to wrestle with these difficult topics and difficult issues, but to do so respectfully and with an open mind,” Young said. 

Young introduced the two speakers for the series’ fourth session: Christina Wolbrecht, professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, and Dianne Pinderhughes, presidential Faculty Fellow and professor of political science and Africana studies.

Before diving into modern-day implications for women’s votes, Wolbrecht gave a brief history of how the 19th Amendment has increasingly impacted political turnouts over the years. 

“When women first got the right to vote in the 1920s, they were almost immediately described as a failure, and what that meant was that women did not seem to be taking up their right to vote,” Wolbrecht said. 

The turnout gap was not in favor of women as it is today, Wolbrecht said. 

“Black women have never stopped fighting for voting rights,” she said.

For Black women, the 19th Amendment is a minuscule part of their fight for voting rights, Wolbrecht said.

Pinderhughes elaborated on resistance Black women have faced in pursuit of a role in politics.

“The 19th Amendment was passed, but when various state legislatures approved the amendment, the agreement was that there wouldn’t be an effort to permit Black women to vote,” Pinderhughes said. 

The point of legislation from the late 1890s, when southern states began to alter their constitutions, was to silence Black women’s voices, Pinderhughes said. 

Pinderhughes then turned the discussion to modern politics.

“Now, with the decision by the Supreme Court in Holder v. Shelby County, the protection of the Voting Rights Act is no longer in place,” Pinderhughes said.  

Pinderhughes said she sees issues with such actions.

“There is no intervention on the part of the department of justice to monitor changes in voting laws,” Pinderhughes said. “[Southern states] have moved very quickly to put restrictions on, and change the law, again to make it more difficult and discourage Blacks from voting.”

The discussion then pivoted towards the stereotypes around women voters. 

Pinderhughes noted there is a whole range of policy issues that affect how women function — they do not just care about one sector of politics. She noted everyday concerns such as nutrition, transportation and air quality, all of which impact a woman’s life.

“We tend to narrow the orientation in terms of what it is that people think is important for women,” Pinderhughes said.

Wolbrecht spoke about misconceptions and assumptions made regarding what actually concerns women.

“We care about the economy, we care about healthcare, we care about the same issues that affect daily life that men do,” Wolbrecht said. “The reality is that women are placed differently in the economy. … Their evaluations of the economy, of what’s best for their family, of where they want to see government protection, is on average, slightly different from men’s.” 

After explaining the role gender differences have on political objectives, Wolbrecht turned towards speculations regarding the 2020 election. 

Policy changes, to Pinderhughes, negatively impact the Black voter community.

“Access to voting rights is a concern in the sense that with Holder v. Shelby County, protection, under section four of the right voting act, is no longer offered,” Pinderhughes said. 

Young then turned towards Wolbrecht, asking what then needed to be done. 

“We are nowhere close to being done,” Wolbrecht said.

She explained that the constitution does not include the affirmative right to vote, which does not require states, counties or municipalities to ensure the right to vote — accountability she wishes existed. 

Pinderhughes said that in addition to this legal framework, “what needs to happen at present is for the tensions that remain between and among women of color to be addressed.”

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