This year our country celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the right to vote for women, although sadly, suffrage was only granted to white women in many states, and it would not be illegal to racially discriminate in voting rights until a much later movement precipitated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
My great grandmother, born in 1870, Anna Everetta Beighley Harn, was a white woman and Wisconsin suffragist, who marched with other women for the right to vote. She married Stephen Douglas Harn at age 20, and together they had four children while living on their farm.
Her life changed overnight when her husband died in a buggy accident coming home one evening. Suddenly at age 34, she was a widow with 13-year-old twin daughters, an 11-year-old girl (my grandmother) and a 4-year-old son. She had to coordinate work on the farm that they owned, move to a different home in a bigger town so that her girls could attend a high school, and raise her family alone, yet she was deemed unworthy of the right to vote through it all.
She managed successfully to get the children all through secondary school. After each of her daughters was married and her son finished high school, she moved back to the farmhouse. When she received news that her daughter Bessie, one of the twins, had given birth to her first grandchild, she decided to risk the long journey to Chicago to visit them.
On this trip, she caught the “Spanish” flu and subsequently died, as did the local doctor who cared for her. Despite her activism in her younger years, her death in 1918 due to the pandemic meant that she missed the right to vote by less than two years. Annie had done her part to change the lives of women in the United States, but much more needed to be done.
About 100 years later, I, Annie’s great granddaughter, Ellen Birkett Lindeen, am following in her footsteps in Illinois. As someone who has worked for peace, been active in the Episcopal Church and social justice, and taught human rights courses to college students, I was selected to attend the 64th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which was to take place at the UN Headquarters in New York in March of 2020.
My appointment by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, designated me as a representative for the Episcopal Church, one of the non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the United Nations.
This 2020 gathering of women celebrates the centennial of women’s right to vote, but also focuses on the 25th anniversary of 1995 Fourth World Council on Women, out of which came the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
This document defines a framework for change with 12 areas of critical concern for women and girls, including education, health, economic power and safety. On March 2, 2020, four days before the activities of delegates were scheduled to begin, those who were going to attend UNCSW were informed that due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, COVID-19, the event was being postponed for public health reasons.
In early March, the current outbreak had not yet been declared a pandemic, but thankfully those in leadership positions knew that an international conference of 22,000 people would be dangerous for everyone, so the event was delayed. As this disease continues to harm people around the world, delegates are grateful that the gathering did not take place at the originally scheduled time. We look forward to a new date, because the goal of achieving women’s rights is not done, but COVID-19 will determine the timeline. I will continue my efforts for women’s rights, as will all the delegates for the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Although these two events are a century apart, I feel very connected to my great-grandmother in work for women’s rights, although I never met her. She died almost 40 years before I was born. Her work for women’s suffrage in the United States was in Wisconsin. My work for gender equality and the empowerment of all women, everywhere in the world, is with the Episcopal Church in the United Nations.
Sadly, in this midst of this pandemic, I have become aware of another significant link between us. Her dream of realizing the right to vote was cut short by the Spanish flu of 1918-19, which took her life. My effort to advocate for women’s rights has been temporarily blocked due to the Coronavirus of 2019-20.
Disease knows no boundaries; a pandemic not only kills men, women and children more or less indiscriminately, but it also prevents the important fight for equality by women who are still struggling to achieve full human rights.
One hundred years ago white women in the United States achieved suffrage, but women of color were largely left out. Today, many poor women around the globe are disenfranchised and disempowered – including those in our own country whose votes are being actively suppressed right now, in this election cycle. The challenges continue. Nevertheless, we will persist.
Ellen Birkett Lindeen is an Emeritus Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College. Her column is syndicated by PeaceVoice.