SMC Women’s Panel Celebrates Women’s Right to Vote

Professor Myrna Santiago, Lauren Babb, Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, Shawn Gilbert, Stephanie Williams-Rogers.In honor of Women’s History Month in March and the marking of 100 years of women’s suffrage, the Women’s and Gender Studies department hosted “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Women in Politics,” a panel discussion with women leaders involved in local politics. Members of the Saint Mary’s community joined in Claeys Lounge on March 9 and filled the room with energy reminiscent of suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote 100 years ago. The panel consisted of District 16 Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who represents Moraga in the California State Assembly; Commissioner Stephanie Williams-Rogers, who serves on the City of Brentwood Parks & Recreation Commission; Shawn Gilbert, the vice president of the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley; and Lauren Babb, a community leader within Contra Costa working to defend women’s reproductive rights. History Professor and Women’s and Gender Studies Director Myrna Santiago moderated the panel.

When asked how female suffrage is important in their own lives, the women on the panel expressed pride in their ability to vote and gratitude to the generations of women before them. Shawn Gilbert shared that the women who fought for the right to vote a hundred years ago make her feel like a “validated citizen” today, and that she never misses an opportunity to vote because of their sacrifices.

Rebecca Bauer-Kahan echoed these sentiments. “We stand on the shoulders of all the women before us,” she said. She added how, as a woman in the California State Legislature, she is often a minority, but the women who fought for their right to vote allow her to not only vote, but to represent her district in local government. The assemblywoman emphasized that while it is easy to take women’s right to vote for granted, it is necessary “that we fight for the women who will come after us, and one day we will be 50 percent, if not more, of the California State Legislature.”

In her response to the question, Lauren Babb reminded the group that not all women received the right to vote 100 years ago, but women of color like herself only got the right to vote in 1965. “I look at the history as a marker as to what we have now,” shared Babb, “but it is our responsibility to make sure we sustain and maintain and expand the rights that we have.”

Stephanie Williams-Rogers commented that, to her, the fight for women’s suffrage means “to look around me and see who needs my help, who needs my voice, and who needs me to be an advocate for themselves when I have a seat at the table.”

As the panel discussed how the suffrage movement has impacted them and why they are involved in politics, Santiago posed the issue that many young people do not feel that the voting system works for them, and asked why young women should be interested in getting involved in politics, and what are some ways to get involved. “You don’t all have to run for office, but you should,” said Bauer-Kahan lightheartedly. She urged young people to be mindful and aware of the many ways in which the government contributes to our daily lives, and that when men make up most of the government, they pass legislation so that the functions of daily life work in their favor. Once women get involved in politics, however, they get to represent women and pass legislation that works for women. Bauer-Kahan explained that in California, women were making 80 cents or less in contrast to every dollar men earned, but legislation was created to lessen the wage gap only because women were present in those conversations. “When we get a seat at the table, we get to be a part of the conversation,” she said.

By the end of the night, the panel of women in politics were able to honor the legacy of suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote 100 years ago while sharing how they got involved in politics and their struggles along the way. Santiago shared the Women’s and Gender Studies Program’s vision in creating “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Women in Politics,” stating, “We put together this event to commemorate the 100th anniversary, but we also think it’s important to highlight the struggles women have had historically and how they weren’t perfect.” Altogether, the event accomplished the goal of reflecting on the successes and shortcomings of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as acknowledging how it has created opportunities for women in politics today, and how they can make space for more women in politics in the future. “Just because it’s not perfect the first time doesn’t mean it stops there,” noted Santiago. “It means you keep fighting because that’s what is important.”