Levine: Women, voting and the $20 bill

In this 1920 photo, women in Washington, D.C., sew stars on a suffrage flag as states ratify the 19th Amendment granting them the right to vote. Tennessee would be the 36th, and last, star on the flag as that number was what was needed to pass the amendment. / Photo from the Library of Congress

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of men granting women the right to vote, we should remember that it took two or three generations from the first women's rights conference in 1848 until that right was granted. Women protested, picketed and were imprisoned around the U.S. The disdain for these protesters was strong and anti-suffragist protests were loud even in Nashville. Sound familiar? Not surprisingly, when the 19th Amendment passed in Tennessee, it did so just barely and was then contested. Fortunately, attempts to rescind passage were unsuccessful, and Tennessee became the deciding vote in passing women's voting rights nationally.

So given our activist history, why are only 19.6% of elected officials in Congress women? And why, in the 2016 presidential election, did only one-third of women eligible to vote cast a ballot? There's never been a female president or vice president or chief justice of the Supreme Court. And in Tennessee, which was so instrumental in passing the voting rights legislation, there's never been a female governor.

What's the problem? Why aren't more women prominent in leadership? Are we ignorant of history and assume women don't mind being overlooked? Read this newspapers' recent columns by Linda Moss Mines (Local History in Sunday Perspective section) about the amazing stories behind passing the 19th Amendment and the efforts of historic icons to achieve women's right to vote. Understand that this centennial isn't just a once-in-a-lifetime commemoration; it's celebrated only one time in many generations.

But will women and their supporters be too depressed to vote in this COVID-19 era? Can we get over our "why bother" attitude? Consider that 76% of public school teachers are women. And 80% of bank tellers, 83% of social workers, 91% of nurses, and 70% of wait staff are women. Yet only 33 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. And of the handful of Black CEOs, none are women. It's way past time that women are seen, heard and elevated to leadership.

Still not inspired to vote? Dig more into our history of iconic women. A great example is Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery, escaped and then rescued 70 enslaved people using the network we know as the Underground Railroad. Truly a woman of valor! Tubman's picture was to be on the $20 bill this year to commemorate the 19th Amendment's passage.

So why was the new $20 bill postponed? Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claimed the design delay was over counterfeiting issues. Curiously, plans for new $10 and $50 bills went forward. Mnuchin's explanation became even more ridiculous when The New York Times reported that the Tubman $20 bill had already been designed.

What really happened isn't a mystery. President Trump complained that putting Tubman on the currency was "pure political correctness." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen angrily responded saying, " this delay sends an unmistakable message to women and girls, and communities of color." Can Shaheen get legislation passed to produce the Tubman $20 bills, or will it take another 100 years?

I'm hopeful that we're seeing progress and a major cultural shift with Biden's choice of Kamala Harris as his vice president pick. But realistically, given Trump's claim that men may feel insulted by a woman VP choice, I anticipate a push-back that's "extraordinarily nasty," a term Trump has already applied to Harris.

Despite the inevitable nastiness, or maybe because of it, I expect women will now vote in unprecedented numbers. I'm hoping for a historic centennial, and that soon, I'll own a $20 bill that's more valuable than anything I've ever had in my wallet.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.