Suffragettes return, rally for D.C. voting rights

Today, members of the League of Women Voters gathered in front of the White House dressed in head-to-toe white. Then, they donned striped boater hats, twirled umbrellas, and walked around in circles in an attempt to convince unsuspecting tourists that Washingtonians deserve a vote in Congress. One demonstrator arrived in full Victorian-era suffragette garb, clutching a lace parasol in her lace-gloved hands.

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Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor Holmes Norton addresses modern suffragettes (Photo: TBD Staff)

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D.C. women recall women's suffrage movement to rally for D.C. to finally get the vote.

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It’s an unconventional approach to persuading the rest of the country that District residents are just regular Americans who deserve a vote, too. But event organizers were happy to raise any awareness of the issue with outsiders. “We’ve talked to [people] today from North Carolina, from Pennsylvania, from Washington state,” says Billie Day, president of the League of Women Voters’ D.C. chapter. “Many of them — probably most of them — were surprised to know that these things were lacking in the District, that we don’t have these [rights] in Congress.” League member Madlyn Calbert was also on hand to help explain the situation. “We can not emphasize enough that people in D.C. don’t have the vote. We don’t seem to count,” she says. “We just watch as the rest of the world goes by.”

Here’s what all that has to do with suffragette costumes: Today marks the 90th anniversary of the day the U.S. secretary of state officially certified the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted voting rights to American women — except for women in the District of Columbia. District Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (also dressed in white) was present to hammer home the connection. “I am not surprised that women would share this day with our D.C. residents,” Norton said. “Women began by sharing. Women were the first abolitionists in the United States, at the very beginning of the 19th century, before they ever raised a movement for their own rights.” And the women’s suffrage movement provides an illustrative example of the fight ahead for D.C. voters: “Those of us who may feel defeated in the District by the gun amendment that caused us to delay our own voting rights” should take heed of the example of the suffragettes, Norton said. “No group, none, had more setbacks along the road to the vote than women. Time and again, they were ridiculed, pushed back, jailed. Never did they even contemplate giving up.”

Women’s suffrage and D.C. voting rights weren’t always such a natural pair. Also appearing at the rally were members of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC, an organization that never supported the 19th Amendment to begin with. “The Association of Oldest Inhabitants testified 18 times on Capitol Hill for voting rights for the District of Columbia beginning in the 1870s,” said Nelson Rimensnyder, the group’s historian (he traded suffragette gear for a D.C. GOP hat and a laminated Frederick Douglass quote draped over his chest. “Whether we were for women’s rights, I don’t know---but we were for everyone to vote in the District of Columbia.”

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