Some said they were excited to cast their first ballots; others said it took them longer to realize the significance of this right. A few plan to vote for the very first time in November.
A century ago, American women won the constitutional right to vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. The historic moment came 133 years after the U.S. Constitution was signed.
This victory was undeniably consequential to women in America. In an appearance with Joe Biden last week, presumptive vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris said she was “mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”
Since the 19th Amendment’s ratification, women are now more likely than men to be registered to vote. In fact, the number of women voters has exceeded their male counterparts in every presidential election since 1964.
Of course, that historic document did not make it so that all women could participate in elections. Millions—particularly Black, Asian, Latino, and Native women—still endured barriers to voting.
Because of poll taxes, literacy tests, and discriminatory state laws, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women were officially allowed to exercise their right to vote without fear of discrimination, intimidation, or violence. And the work to ensure all citizens can vote is still ongoing today.
To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, COURIER asked women from various backgrounds to talk about their first time voting. Some said they were excited to cast their first ballots; others said it took them longer to realize the significance of this right. A few women we spoke with plan to vote for the very first time in November.
As one soon-to-be first-time voter told COURIER: “As a woman, it’s empowering to be able to vote. I feel like we owe it to those women who spent their entire lives fighting for the right to vote.”
Margaret Mallia, 19
Margaret Mallia, a college sophomore at Central Michigan University, voted for the first time this year in the Michigan primary with her mom and sister.
“When we arrived at our polling location, it was right next to a gun range so we were voting to the sound of gunfire which was a little unsettling for me. I think it took around 20 minutes for all of us to cast our ballots and meet again outside. It made me feel really powerful,” Mallia said. “I knew that in 20 minutes I was able to do something that so many women fought so hard to do and that I was hopefully making our country a little better than before.”
As long as Mallia can remember, her mother has been interested in politics. Although she’s been open about where she stands ideologically, she’s encouraged Mallia and her three sisters to form their own opinions. They’ve also attended women’s marches together as a family.
“I grew up in a small conservative town and I have been aware that my political views were different than some of my peers. I live with my mom and three sisters, so women’s rights are talked about a lot. Especially with the 2016 election and our president’s blatant sexism and lack of respect for women.”
When Mallia goes to the polls in November, she said she’ll be doing her part to keep society moving in the right direction. Women, she said, have come so far in society, but “there’s so much left to do. It’s crazy to think about when you’re casting your ballot for the first time.”
Suzanne D’Amico Sharp, 63
Growing up, Suzanne D’Amico Sharp’s family had always been engaged in local politics. When they moved to New Jersey in 1968, they discovered the area they lived in was almost entirely represented by Republican politicians. Her parents felt strongly that every town should be represented by two parties, so her father launched a local club for Democrats and even served on the township committee.
Naturally, when D’Amico Sharp turned 18 in 1974, she knew she had to exercise her right to vote. Although there wasn’t a presidential election that year—and she had to cast an absentee ballot because she was away at college—she said she knew it was important to participate, especially after spending time volunteering on a congressional campaign.
It wasn’t exciting, that first vote, but it was memorable, D’Amico Sharp said. “It was very important to me … It was about being active.”
Safiyah Mohamed, 18
Recent high school graduate and aspiring journalist Safiyah Mohamed will be voting for the first time in November.
“It’s an incredible honor,” she said, “and a huge responsibility to have the right to vote.” She also said she’s particularly excited to cast her very first ballot for California Sen. Kamala Harris to be the first Black and South Asian woman as vice president.
“Knowing that I’ll have a voice in who’s able to be president soon and who we will elect is something I’m really looking forward to taking part in,” Mohamed said.
As the day to cast her first ballot draws closer, Mohamed said she’s concerned by the current administration’s attempt to roll back reproductive rights, among other issues. Being able to let the people in Washington know that we do have ownership over our own bodies and we do have that choice, and nobody else should be able to tell us what we can and can’t do with it. It’s not their place.”
“Knowing that I’ll have a voice in who’s able to be president soon and who we will elect is something I’m really looking forward to taking part in.”
The nationwide reckoning with racial justice brought about by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May is also top of mind for Mohamed. “I want to know where each politician or candidate stands on that and how they plan on helping African Americans who are affected by many inequities,” she said. “And what they plan on doing to advance Black Americans and to make sure that we’re all on the same playing field.”
Though she’s still researching which down-ballot candidates she wants to support, one congresswoman already has her vote: Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. Both she and Mohamed are Somali Americans and Black women in Minnesota, and a brief meeting with the lawmaker last summer left her feeling deeply impacted.
“She’s one of many women who inspire me,” Mohamed said.
Ellen Roberts, 62
Ellen Roberts currently works as a teacher in Ohio. She voted for the first time in 1974 when she was a senior in high school. The polling place was located in the basement of a church down the road from her house; she distinctly remembers the sounds of people entering their booths and pulling a lever as they cast their ballots.
After moving away to go to college in upstate New York, Roberts voted by mail; the first time she did, she recalls having the newspaper open beside her as she filled out the ballot. “I had been following the issues in the weeks and months ahead of time, and I filled out the form,” she said. “I just felt funny sticking a stamp on it and throwing it in the slot for outgoing mail in the dormitory, so I walked down into town and went to the post office.”
Even though the woman behind the counter told her one stamp was sufficient, Roberts added a second just in case. “I wanted to make sure it arrived.”
Denise Keyser, 61
For Denise Roberts, a lawyer in New Jersey, voting for the first time in 1976 didn’t feel like a big deal. Her parents were active in politics, and she cast her ballot for Gerald Ford based on their beliefs. That, she said, was the last time she voted for a Republican.
“I just didn’t think anything at all about it,” she said, adding that things changed when she went to law school. She and her friends “spent hours sitting in the dorms talking about who to vote for, what the issues were, and in the span of four years, I suddenly realized the world was not this cozy little place where everybody is happy.”
In recent years, that’s become even more clear to her. “If people don’t vote, the will of the people is thwarted. It’s important to protect the right of everybody. I’m a little bit freaked out by the last four years; it just seems like all the things we thought would not happen here are a possibility. So I do worry about the rhetoric we’re hearing [because] women have really come too far to have those gains taken away.”
Nancy Navarro, 55
Nancy Navarro, a Montgomery County councilmember, grew up in Venezuela and moved to the United States for college. Her first vote was in 1996 just months after becoming a naturalized citizen.
“So many people take for granted what this means and just realizing that voting, that action, can really make a difference,” she said.
Navarro said she grew up feeling largely apolitical but became more involved after moving to the states and learning more about the United States’ foreign policy. “As somebody who was born in another country and raised in another country, the fact that [in] the United States the institutions of democracy are so effective, and there is such respect for that, was very unique and very exciting,” she said.
“The history of women’s right to vote is so important to remember given what we’re facing today, 100 years later.”
For Navarro, voting has an additional layer of importance as a woman of color. “The history of women’s right to vote is so important to remember given what we’re facing today, 100 years later,” she said. “These issues surrounding voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement are still happening today.”
Tasnia Hossain, 19
Tasnia Hossain is a sophomore nursing student at the University of Michigan, and she plans to vote for the first time during the general election in November. She considers it a duty to the early feminists who fought for her to have that right.
“I feel like we just owe it to them to carry on their legacy and exercise a right that they didn’t have. And make sure that we’re represented in politics,” Hossain said.
As a future medical professional,, Hossain said health care is the issue she cares about the most when it comes to casting her ballot in November—and even more so considering the current public health crisis.
She also intends to vote for candidates committed to diverse representation in government and lowering the cost of higher education. “I care a lot about making sure that the LGBTQ+ community is accounted for and represented because I feel that often they are just shoved to the side and not really cared about as much,” Hossain said. “I [also] think that education should be more accessible because college is so expensive. And I wish that there was a way for kids to be able to go to college without having to worry about the financial situation.”
Hossain admitted that she’s not “well-versed in politics” but she plans to research all of the candidates’ positions before voting because it is important to know where her elected officials stand now, as well as their past positions.
“The upcoming election is going to be a really big one and I’m really glad I’m able to have a say in who gets chosen to lead our country.”