Women’s (In)Equality Day: The fight for the ballot, our bodies, and democracy

August 26, 2022 7:05 am

About 30 people rallied for abortion rights on June 29, 2022, outside the Statehouse in Trenton. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

On August 26, 1920, activists and suffragists across the country celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted some women the right to vote.

Today, on the 102nd anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we must recognize that the right to vote — as well as other freedoms fundamental to equality and justice, such as the right to reproductive health privacy, including abortion, contraception, and infertility care — are once again under attack. Women have fewer rights today than they have had in decades.

The passage of the 19th Amendment, the result of generations of organizing, allowed women to realize one of the most fundamental tenets of full citizenship: voting. Of course, in practice, the protections of the 19th Amendment did not extend to all women equally. Despite the significant role they played in the struggle for suffrage, Black, Latina, Indigenous, and other women of color across the country were still largely denied access to the ballot until the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1975. In 2022, we again see women of color continuing to be the lead organizers in the battle for voting rights and reproductive justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings chipping away at the Voting Rights Act (Shelby v. Holder) and overturning the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) have paved the way for states across the nation to pass laws that severely restrict both the right to vote and the right to an abortion.

These two rights are inextricably linked. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbsleaves protections for contraception, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage on the chopping block as well. With these assaults on the ability to participate in the democratic process, maintain bodily autonomy, and decide one’s own fate free from government interference, women, people who can become pregnant — including transgender and nonbinary individuals — and marginalized communities are facing levels of inequality, intolerance, threats of violence, and disenfranchisement that turn back the hand of time and roll back decades of progress.

To protect all that is at stake, we must once again join together and continue the fight of so many generations of women before us. It is critical that we turn out to vote and demand that our government act decisively to uphold our constitutional rights. It is also critical that we demand our rights be protected and restored at every level of government, from school boards to the White House.

To protect our right to the ballot and our right to reproductive health, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey supports two critical pieces of legislation: the Reproductive Equity Act (A4350/S2918) and same-day voter registration (A1966/S247). These bills understand that without equitable access to the ballot and without allowing women and their medical providers the right to make shared decisions about pregnancy options, we continue to perpetuate a democracy that only works for some.

We are told New Jersey has done enough for reproductive health and voting rights. But as it was in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, New Jersey has only done enough for some of us. Women of color and people who can become pregnant are leading the movement for a more equitable New Jersey but continue to be denied full access and protection. Passage of the Reproductive Equity Act would expand access to reproductive health care and eliminate cost barriers to care. Passage of same-day voter registration would ensure that every eligible voter could make their voice heard in the midst of the clamor of those who want to silence us.

As a Black woman, immigrant, and leader of the New Jersey chapter of one of the oldest voting rights organizations in our country, I know firsthand that voter suppression tactics target Black and brown communities. As a practicing Ob/Gyn, I know that even when the right to abortion is protected as it is in New Jersey, barriers to access remain. Half measures and “good enough” only protect those with the most privilege while leaving everyone else behind.

Our society will not be free and just until the most vulnerable people are able to access these resources, and nothing short of bold action will ensure a truly equitable democracy. While we might not yet all be equal, we are organizing to ensure that we will no longer be ignored.

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Jennifer M. Howard
Jennifer M. Howard

Jennifer M. Howard, MD, MPH, FACOG, is president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. Dr. Howard is a practicing OB/GYN physician in NYC, having also previously practiced in New Jersey. She has been a vice president for the African American Parent Support Group, WW-P Regional School district (a parent advocacy organization with over 25 years of addressing racial disparities and educational achievement gaps in African-American students), a preceptor to medical students and residents, a medical volunteer for overseas medical missions and a medical director of a reproductive health organization. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard/Radcliffe, her medical school degree from Howard University’s College of Medicine and her master’s of public health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.