June 4, 2019 Blog

The Future is Female, Because Females Made History

By: Leah Childs, Kentucky Democratic Party Intern

In 2020 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave all women the right to vote. Restrictions put in place by southern states would prevent African Americans from voting until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“But let’s start at the beginning with the law of the land. It is 1765 and William Blackstone’s law of coverture states that when a woman marries, she and her husband became one,” writes Sylvia Coffey in a script for the Women’s Suffragist Centennial Chorus of Frankfort, Kentucky.

“The legal existence of the woman is suspended during a marriage and legally a woman who became a wife became non-existent,” explained Coffey.

As women across the U.S. began to realize they had been positioned as second class citizens something magical started to happen, the beginnings of the Women’s Rights Movement. Coffey said these musings became official during the historical 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

“The idea for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention began with five ladies having tea and Elizabeth Cady Stanton lamenting the ‘woman’s condition.’  With this small tea party, the Woman Suffrage cause had officially begun, and many years of hard work lay ahead. It would take seventy-two years, to be exact,” writes Sylvia Coffey, the founding member of the Chorus—a group that has made it their mission to remind others of the 72 years of sacrifices made to secure a woman’s right to vote.

If you have yet to hear of the Centennial Chorus, it’s likely because it is the only one of its kind. The concept began with Coffey, in 2014. And it started just as the Women’s Movement did, as one of the founding members Nancy Atcher explained, “in the homes of everyday women who happened to also want change.” Atcher and Coffey would meet regularly with other women in the community to discuss the Women’s Movement and soon realized they had something remarkable to celebrate.

“I realized that women had only had the vote for 96 years at that time, and the centennial would be in 2020.  I made a commitment to learn more, share more, and to celebrate the women who made it happen,” said Coffey.

The Centennial Chorus takes protest songs from the movement and sings the historic ballads, in a reenactment, wearing white attire resembling the protesters in one of the first marches on Washington D.C. in 1913.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1913, Women marched on Washington

 

The hymns Coffey selects are parodies of well-known tunes like Yankee Doodle. The words of the hymns are changed from their traditional lyrics to those that reflect the plight of women:

             YANKEE DOODLE   (1884)                                    

When Uncle Sam set up his house, he welcomed every brother

But in the haste of his new life, he quite forgot his mother.

Chorus: Yankee Doodle keep it up, our brothers must not flout us,

        Mind the music, keep the step, they will not vote without us.

 

Although a hundred years have passed, it seems so strange to find him

Only now dis-cov-er-ing his half was left behind him.

 

Chorus: Yankee Doodle keep it up, our brothers must not flout us,

        Mind the music, keep the step, they will not vote without us.

Yankee Doodle’s wife and girls shall have his full protection,

Share his cares and holidays and vote at his election.

 

The ladies today, sing these hymns wearing all white attire with sashes across their bodies with the official purple and yellow colors of the Suffragist Movement. A glance at them will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back into time. This, in part, is what makes getting their message across so effective, they are truly a sight to be seen.

 

 

 

 

Leading the2018 Fourth of July Parade in Lexington, KY

 

On January 19th, 2019,  the group led the 3rd annual Women’s March. Their presence was a reminder of not only how far the country has come, but how hard women must continue to fight to preserve the right’s that the vote has afforded. Coffey says the chorus is about “bringing this history to life, using the words from the past, songs from the past— it makes us realize how important women’s issues are today.  Learning from the past helps strengthen us for the future.”

According to TIME magazine, in 2016 only 23percent of the U.S. government offices were held by women. Similarly, in Kentucky, women makeup 51 percent of the population but represent only 22.5 percent of the state legislature.

Voter Suppression Continues

The fight for gender equality didn’t end with the 19th Amendment according to Doraine Bailey, another founding member of the Centennial Chorus.

Bailey worked in public health for many years and said young women would often tell her they didn’t see the need to even register to vote because they couldn’t trust the system. Many of them would say, “you can’t trust politicians; I don’t want to be involved in all that dirty stuff; it’s too complicated to learn about all the issues,” Bailey explained. “When folks think of voting rights now, it’s more about re-enfranchising African Americans,” she said.

While the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in the early 1900’s, African American Women were significantly marginalized from the movement. The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was the only Black women’s organization to march in the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913. As honorary member Mary Church Terrell once famously said,  “Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race as well as that of sex.”

 

 

 

 

 

Ida B. Wells, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Marching with other Suffragists in 1913

 

Here is another excerpt from a Centennial Chorus performance, highlighting efforts by strong African American Women:

Mary Ellen Britton, life-long resident of Lexington, was a major leader in the community.  As an African American woman she wasn’t supposed to be a teacher – and then go on to become a journalist, a civil rights activist, a social reformer, or a medical doctor.  But she accomplished all of these. She was a Berea graduate, and her first vocation was teaching. Her interests in improving the community and helping those in need led her to the other professions she became known for. In 1902, she would become the first black woman in Lexington to be a licensed physician.

In 1887 Mary Ellen Britton, delivered a speech titled “Woman’s Suffrage: A Potent Agency in Public Reforms” before the Colored Teachers Association, calling for the vote for women.  In this published speech she argued, “If woman is the same as man then she has the same rights, if she is distinct from man then she has a right to the ballot to help make laws for her government.”  Despite a busy medical practice, Britton remained active in civil rights and the growing women’s rights movement. With her many good works, she made Lexington a better place to live.

Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states could impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and other stipulations to keep African Americans from voting. Kentucky Democratic Representative Attica Scott says while discriminatory practices have mostly been outlawed, we continue to see new ways to suppress voter turnout. Whether it’s through prohibiting early voting, enforcing strict voter ID laws or disenfranchising felony offenders, efforts like this continue in the commonwealth that predominantly affect voters of color and poorer citizens. Efforts, Rep. Scott says, she fights today in the Kentucky legislature.

Representative Scott was the first African American Woman in Kentucky to be elected to the General Assembly after a more than 20-year gap in representation. Rep. Scott attributes the lack of representation to several factors, but mostly that Black women couldn’t vote until just 53 years ago.

“When we are talking about Black neighborhoods and communities of color, we are talking about people who are less resourced than many White people who run for office,” said Rep. Scott.  Adding that many of those women are often the first in their families to be involved in government and therefore have little to no legacy or model to follow.

“When you do win, you will be faced with an environment that can be oppositional to who you are as a person because of racism and sexism […] seeing someone like yourself being represented is important, it sends a message to young people that they have a chance,” Rep. Scott said.

THE YELLOW RIBBON – 1876

Verse 1

“Tis just a hundred years ago our mothers and our sires

Lit up, for the world to see, the flame of freedom’s fires;

Through bloodshed and through hardship they labored in the fight;

Today we women labor still for Liberty and Right.

Chorus

Oh, we wear a yellow ribbon upon our woman’s breast,

We are prouder of its sunny hue than of a royal crest;

“Twas God’s own primal color, born of purity and light,

We wear it now for liberty, for justice and for Right…

Regardless of race, background, religious or cultural preference, Coffey and the women of the Centennial Chorus want all women’s voices to be heard. With the current administration, many in the group fear the work put forward by suffragists is at risk. Whether it is weakening protections against gender-based violence, attacking reproductive rights or undermining female leadership, the fight to protect women and their rights continues with the vote. The Women’s Suffragist Centennial Chorus of Frankfort, invite anyone willing to listen to their stories to also sing along.

The Women’s Suffragist Centennial Chorus is planning appearances in 2019 and 2020. If groups are interested in having an appearance by the Chorus in the Central Kentucky area please contact: Sylvia Coffee at (502)747-5700 or e-mail scoffey7@mis.net.

See a recent performance in the Senate Chambers here.