Pushing a walker and wearing a straw hat to ward off the roasting sun, 96-year-old Edna Wirt Woods inched her way into the Civic Arts Plaza Park on Saturday, but she rocketed 75 years back into history.
On Aug. 26, 1920, Wirt Woods became one of the first women in America eligible to vote when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Taking a seat with the nearly 400 others assembled at the park to commemorate the 75th anniversary of women’s voting rights, Wirt Woods whispered that she had turned 21--then the legal voting age--just five days before Congress signed women’s suffrage into law.
“As soon as the amendment passed, I registered to vote,” said the retired educator, who like many in attendance was dressed all in white--a symbol of the suffrage movement. “I believed that women should certainly have every opportunity in the world.”
The Thousand Oaks community picnic was among hundreds of events held across the nation Saturday to mark the diamond jubilee of women’s voting rights. Sponsored by more than a dozen women’s organizations, including the local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the National Organization for Women, the Thousand Oaks event featured speeches by local female politicians, civic leaders and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.), perhaps one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates of women’s issues.
Scores of women in 1920s-style linen dresses, accented with purple sashes and straw bonnets, picnicked under the shade of oak trees. At times, only the presence of plastic coolers betrayed that this was 1995.
Placards reading “Democracy Is Voting” and “Protect Human Dignity” lined the park’s open-air amphitheater. Throughout the afternoon, women from the Ventura Senior Drama Troupe filed to the podium to re-enact the lives of noted suffragists.
“I declared I would never marry to be a husband’s political slave,” said Jean Nussman, 65, of Ventura, who--dressed in a tight dark wig and black dress--quoted the famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony. " '. . . I was soon known as the Napoleon of 19th-Century feminism.’ ”
With the informal, punchy delivery that is her trademark, Boxer hopped between the history of women’s suffrage and current events, all the while underscoring the importance of the 19th Amendment.
“Few [events] can really compare to that,” Boxer said. “Imagine only half of our population was enfranchised.”
The senator thanked the dozens of men in the audience for joining their loved ones at the celebration. Boxer lauded the progress women have made in politics, including her election as one of the first two female senators from California. But she decried recent events, such as televised scenes of jubilant cadets at the Citadel celebrating Shannon Faulkner’s departure from the all-male military school.
Boxer called on women to persuade others to register to vote.
“We need to redouble and triple our efforts,” she said. “We still don’t vote in sufficient numbers.”
Ruth Firestone, a 77-year-old Camarillo resident who was a toddler when the 19th Amendment passed, said she has never missed voting in a election.
“I’ve seen great progress in terms of jobs for women, education for women and voting,” Firestone said. “But I hope that men will stop being so chauvinistic. . . . It’s time that they realize we’re equal.”
Marina Rasnow, a 12-year-old Thousand Oaks resident, said Saturday’s event had been a good history lesson. Though she must wait another six years to cast a ballot, she said she already understands the power of suffrage.
“If we couldn’t vote, we would all be destined to become homemakers,” Marina said. “We wouldn’t have any say.”
The battle women and men fought for the right of women to have an equal political voice lasted more than 70 years.
In July, 1848, a group of women met in Seneca Falls, N. Y., and adopted a declaration patterned after the Declaration of Independence. One resolution established a woman’s “sacred right to the elective franchise.”
Susan B. Anthony drew a large crowd when she visited Ventura to speak at a rally in 1896, the year the statewide women’s suffrage amendment appeared on the California ballot.
“The names of the people who attended sound kind of like a Who’s Who of the county,” said Alberta Word, a Ventura County librarian.
But the amendment failed and California women had to wait another 15 years to vote. The amendment eventually passed in 1911, though in Ventura County, the amendment was defeated by 43 votes.
“Its time had come,” Word said. “It was still a very close call. The liquor lobby was very much afraid that the women would vote in a bloc and bring about Prohibition.”
It took Congress an additional nine years to pass the 19th Amendment, which was not ratified by all the states until Aug. 26, 1920.
Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who attended Saturday’s picnic, said he did not start pondering the amendment’s significance until he began raising his two daughters. Lopez said the fight for women’s voting rights mirrors the struggle to provide minorities with more political voice.
“I know in a couple of years, my daughters are going to be adults,” Lopez said. “I don’t want the glass ceiling to persist.”