If you want democracy to work, Barbara A. Milkulski likes to say, you have to work at democracy.
A great deal of that work was done by generations of women in America as they fought for their right to vote, finally secured in 1920 by the 19th Amendment — and it wasn’t just a fight, Mikulski said. It was a battle.
“I bristle at the phrase, ‘given the right to vote.’ No one ‘gave’ them anything,” Mikulski said. “Suffragists were tarred, ostracized, and fought a tremendous battle to win hearts and minds and a place in the Constitution.”
Mikulski, former U.S. Senator from Maryland, is the longest-serving woman in Congressional history, a lifelong public servant, and a commissioner for the federal Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Currently the Homewood Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Mikulski will close the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme of “The Women’s Vote Centennial and Beyond” in conversation with Institution President Michael E. Hill on “How to Use This Anniversary to ‘Remember, Reflect and Recommit’” at 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, July 31, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform.
Mikulski spoke as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club Contemporary Issues Forum in 2018; at that point, plans were already being formed for a week celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
“Senator Mikulski has been a trusted guide throughout our planning for a week on the suffrage centennial, reminding us of how we can look to history as a reminder of the work ahead of us,” said Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, who works with his department to plan each week’s theme and lectures. “In particular, we look forward to her insight on the lessons we can take from the suffragists as we look to today’s social justice movements.
When Mikulski and Institution staff began talking about 2020, they were aware that “this is a significant year,” she said, encompassing the national census and a presidential election alongside demographic shifts.
“The manner of Chautauqua, with roots in tradition of the exchange of the contemporary and new ideas with reflecting on the past … means that they can bring that principled nonpartisanship to a commemoration on the suffrage centennial,” Mikulski said.
But more than just commemorating, Mikulski pointed to the national theme of the federal commission: “Know our history, and to own the whole narrative,” she said. “Reflect on what it meant, and not just observe the benchmarks of these battles, but remember, reflect and recommit.”
At the commission, Milkulski said, “we are committed to owning the entire narrative. The good, the bad and, at times, the ugly. Often, we talk about what George W. Bush said at the dedication of the (National Museum of African American History and Culture): that a great nation often has flaws, but what makes a nation great is that it looks at its flaws and tries to do better.”
As her conversation with Hill will offer insights on just how to “Remember, Reflect and Recommit,” Milkulski wants to impart “how each person can make a difference and work together to make change. People will say, ‘I’m just one person,’ but you can make a difference.”
It’s about participating in a community, voting in elections, volunteering, she said. It’s about taking ideas and turning them into actions. It’s what the suffragists did.
“Ideas and ideals that lead to action, to empowerment — that’s what the battle was for,” she said.
This program is made possible by the Richard W. and Jeannette D. Kahlenberg Lectureship Fund.