March 25, 2020 Chair's Column

What the 1920s Can Teach Us about the 2020s

By Stephanie A. Scharf

This is a hectic and scary time. We are all grappling with many new challenges and decisions about our health and well-being and those of family and friends. Sometimes it helps to take a few minutes, step back, and focus on challenges that we have faced in the past and overcome by working together. 

This year, the Commission on Women in the Profession has focused on the history and meaning of the Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified just 100 years ago. While many people think of the 1920s as a time of hot jazz, gangsters, Prohibition, and the stock market crash, that decade was also a critical time for the advancement of women.

The Nineteenth Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment meant that 26 million American women became first-time voters in the 1920 U.S. presidential election. Even so, not all women had that opportunity. Millions of women of color remained disenfranchised for many decades. Nor did the federal right to vote readily translate into other civil rights, such as the right to serve on a jury, the right to contraception, the right to work in any profession, and more.

The right of women to vote has deep meaning, even today, as recognized by the Nineteenth Amendment activities fostered by ABA President Judy Perry Martinez. For an array of learning resources, please visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/Programs/19th-amendment-centennial.

March is Women’s History Month, and the Commission on Women in the Profession is posting and tweeting about historical milestones and important figures in women’s struggle for equality in society at large and the legal profession in particular.

Although elections do not occur very often, there are many everyday opportunities to “vote.” Women vote with their wallets when they support businesses that align with their values. They vote with their feet when they leave companies that do not treat them equally and take new positions at more inclusive workplaces. They vote with their time, effort, energy, and grit when they pursue a career in law and make difficult decisions about balancing work with their caretaking responsibilities and their own wellness.

Each of us has a personal story to tell about how we vote in our everyday lives. What we say or what we do not say, what we do or what we do not do—each action, or inaction, can be a vote one way or the other. It’s often difficult to step up and vote. I wish for all of us to have the courage, interest, and grit to vote the way we feel is right. Here at the Commission, we honor each person’s contribution to a more just and equitable society and profession.

My hope is that each of us moves forward with strength and in health and, together, overcome the challenges we face—just as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did 100 years ago when they fought for and won ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

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By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago and chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.