Josphine Hargis was 21 years old when she voted for the first time.
That was in 1954.
But as a Black woman, the experience was met with discomfort, challenges and skepticism.
Hargis, like many other women in the 20th century, took her right to vote seriously.
But it was only a century ago that women had to shout, protest and fight their way to have their voices matter. Tuesday marks the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. And while many women fought for that right, women of color have largely been left out of the history books.
“It’s been one step at a time,” Hargis said. “We see a lot of women of all colors of the past 100 years that had to struggle to get the vote for women. And now, they’ve come a mighty long way.”
Hargis is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a historically Black organization that was formed just months before the infamous Suffrage March on Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1913. While many might remember crowds of white women who were also fighting for their right to vote, the original 22 members of of the sorority also elbowed their way through the crowds, said Willia Miller-Walker, recording secretary for the Williamsburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
“It wasn’t an easy march for those 22 founders but they persevered,” Miller-Walker said. “Because racism was loud and clear at that time and even some of the white suffragettes didn’t want the African American women to march, but the founders [of the sorority] pushed their way through.”
As a result of the insistence of women from all races and backgrounds, women over the past century have been able to step up to the polls and express their political desires.
Hargis distinctly remembers the first time she voted the condescension she felt by the registrar. Voters had to pay a poll tax during that time and confirm they were literate, which Hargis said discouraged a lot of Black voters. However, when she was able not only to pay, but to read anything that was put in front of her, she could feel the tension coming from the white poll workers.
For generations of Black women, voting wasn’t necessarily easy. It wasn’t until 1965 that President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act which prohibited barriers to voting such as literacy tests and authorized an investigation of poll taxes.
“For me, the significance is not only that it took so long to have the right to vote, but it’s the difference in those years between 1920 and 1965,” said Shene’ Owens, current social action chairwoman for the Williamsburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. “For me, anytime there is an election I go to make sure my voice was heard because there was a time that women who looked like me didn’t have a right to do so.”
Since she was a little girl, Owens’ mother instilled the importance of voting and educating yourself about elections. When Owens was finally old enough to vote for the first time in 2004, she was sorely disappointed because the absentee ballot she requested never arrived.
However, just a few years later she was able to vote in her first presidential election in 2008 and remembers driving past her alma mater, Hampton University, and seeing celebrations and crowds.
“I remember going to the polling place and feeling the energy of the night,” she said. “Hearing the results and tears of joy streaming out of my face because I was a part of that.”
While those voting experiences have been different for Hargis and Owens, they both used their passion for voting rights to help spread education and awareness in their community through the sorority and other organizations.
When Hargis joined the sorority at Virginia Union University she used her position as social action chairwoman to educate fellow members about their rights, policy and politics and show them the strength to have their voice heard.
Hargis said because the sorority’s primary focus was on the advancement of Black women, she felt it was important to educate them and eventually she became chairwoman of the sorority’s social action committee for nearly 10 years, worked with the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.
Decades later, Owens continues the work of the sorority to not only share her own passion for voting rights but also to remember women like Hargis who had to face barriers to cast their ballot.
“But I had a right to participate in who would be doing what in my government,” Hargis said. “So many things have changed since then, but so many things still need to be changed. You can’t ever let go.”
As for women’s roles in leadership, Williamsburg City Councilwoman Barbara Ramsey said it’s important for any governing body to reflect the demographics of the area.
Ramsey, whose personal mantra is “Do important oppose to be important,” did not consider running for a government position until she saw that Judy Knudson, the only woman on the city council at the time, wouldn’t seek re-election.
“Anywhere and everywhere there is an organization, women need to be represented,” she said, adding when it came to being in leadership, women tend to be more diplomatic and better at building professional relations.
Concerning the future of Williamsburg, Ramsey hopes more women get involved with local leadership. As an alumna of William & Mary, Ramsey said she likes to set a positive example for the students, acting as a bridge between the college and the town. She said there are several points she always tells students who are interested in seeking leadership opportunities.
“One is to get involved. If you’re interested in how the city works or how the state works, then contact local government officials and see where there are opportunities for volunteering or find projects you’re interested in,” she said.
She attended the League of Women Voters’ Centennial Tea celebration in February when a guest gave a presentation on the suffrage movement. It was eye-opening for Ramsey.
“I had taken my right to vote for granted,” she said. “I had not paid attention to the trials and tribulations and the horrific conditions that the woman who fought for our right to vote went through. Not only for women, but for people of color. There are so many things others before us did for their right to vote that we really need to take seriously.”
Ramsey said she believes voting to be a civil obligation as an enshrined right in the constitution.
“It’s only when citizens participate that a democracy is real and sustainable,” she said.
- YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT THESE STORIES:
- Local nonprofits are coming up with creative solutions in the face of fundraising challenges
- The Red Cross needs blood donations, convalescent plasma donors to help those battling COVID. Here are local drives
- The Confederate memorial in Williamsburg is no more
- James City County Police are asking for help in finding missing man