Not vote? What would suffragettes say?
I am the granddaughter of a suffragette. When my mom was born in 1916, the 19th Amendment had not yet passed and women across the country couldn’t vote. The franchise was so important to my mother that she always took me to the polls to witness the sacred ritual of voting. She voted in every election she could until dementia robbed her of the ability to do so at the age of 95.
To this day, I always vote in person, and I always wear my “I Voted” sticker proudly. I believe voting is not just a privilege but an ethical duty.
In the United States, we the people are sovereign, and we delegate authority to those we would put in charge of governing. Public officials are our employees. They govern with our consent. Voting is our way of keeping officials accountable. It is our tool to accomplish policies for the common good by making sure we elect those who represent our ideals.
Certainly the suffragette Clara Foltz understood the importance of the vote for advancing the common good. In 1878 she was abandoned by her husband and was left to figure out a way to provide for her five children.
Traditional woman’s work didn’t bring in enough money, so she decided to become a lawyer, soon discovering that it was against the law for women to practice law in California.
She and her suffragist friends decided to take on Sacramento and change the law. Since they couldn’t vote, they reached out and found some progressive men to be their advocates—including the editor of the San Jose Mercury at the time, J.J. Owen, and the state senator from San Jose (and Santa Clara College grad) Barney Murphy.
The bill failed in the Assembly, but due to clever lobbying, the women and their allies were able to get the bill reconsidered, and the Women’s Lawyer Bill finally passed by two votes.
Against all odds, Foltz became the first woman admitted to the bar in California. She kept her family together and was instrumental in later getting an equal employment clause for women inserted in the new California Constitution.
She opened the door for other women to attend California’s first public law school, and she help found the public defender system in the United States.
All of this was an uphill battle, however, because women couldn’t vote and there was no one in power to represent them. That didn’t change until 1920, when Foltz was finally able to fully participate in our democratic process—one of the few early suffragists who lived long enough to exercise her right to vote.
Foltz fought for the vote, not because she merely wanted the privilege of being able to participate but because she wanted to help achieve change for the common good.
People of good will can differ on the means by which the common good can be achieved, but if we fail to vote, we are abdicating our responsibility to our country and squandering a right our grandmothers and great grandmothers fought so hard to achieve.
Vote so that the people in government represent you. Vote so you can help achieve change for the common good. Fulfill your ethical duty by casting your ballot on election day. And don’t forget your sticker.
Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and teaches the free online short course, “How to Run an Ethical Campaign—And Win!” (The opinions are hers; the Ethics Center does not take positions.) This commentary originally appeared under another title in The Mercury News.