My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother Thorina Melquist, a Norwegian immigrant whose oldest daughter died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina weaned her youngest child in order to nurse my grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but miraculously survived. Thorina was a suffragette who participated in demonstrations in Minneapolis for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.
Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragette. She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota. Women's suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.
In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote. I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 - 50 years after initially rejecting it. Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984! Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted - so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year. In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries. In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower. Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout.
I love to vote. I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable. When I'm standing in the voting booth, I feel my Grandma Lillian and Great-great-grandmother Thorina are there with me. But there are also others with me - everyone I've ever met who risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.
The young Haitian asylum seeker, for example, who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990. He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide's rooster symbol on the ballot. It was the first time he had ever voted and, he told me, "It was a very good day."
Village meeting about 2004 elections in Kono District, Sierra Leone
When I was in Sierra Leone, I met many people whose hands or arms had been amputated with machetes by members of the Revolutionary United Front. Some of them had been targeted during an elections so that they couldn't vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot. I also heard that the RUF hacked off hands during one election because the government's slogan was "The power is in the hands of the people."
I visited Sierra Leone in 2004, just prior to the first post-conflict elections. As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections. In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.
Girls in an upcountry village, Sierra Leone
Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college. She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn't see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl. Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks. I remember sitting in my grandparents' darkened living room. A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed. It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian spoke to me gently, "You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be. But never forget those of us who weren't able to follow our dreams. Follow your dreams for us."
So that's why I am going to vote tonight. I'm doing it for my Grandma Lillian. And for everyone else who can't follow their dreams.
The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women's Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.
I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian.