Suffragette spirit still needed today. Tacoma woman helped show the way

While our country focused this past week on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that turned the tide of World War II, a major anniversary passed rather quietly for another watershed event — one that also advanced the cause of liberty by leaps and bounds.

We’d be remiss not to mark the centennial of Congress adopting the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

This monumental achievement on June 4, 1919, should resonate strongly in Tacoma because a local woman, Emma Smith DeVoe, helped lead the fight for suffrage in Washington and across the nation.

Naturally, it was two other Washington women, U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who helped ensure the anniversary didn’t go unremembered. In her remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday, Cantwell drew special attention to the role of our state’s two leading suffragettes: DeVoe of Tacoma and May Arkwright Hutton of Spokane.

DeVoe and Hutton stood out in a long line of equal-rights pioneers, Cantwell said — “women who saw the promise of the United States and fought for their place in it, women who helped craft a more perfect union. For nearly a century, these women fought to be heard, and their efforts fundamentally transformed our democracy and our country.”

If they were alive today, however, the suffragettes surely would be alarmed by the underrepresentation of women as corporate CEOS, academics, engineers, surgeons and in many other fields of endeavor, including Congress and the White House.

The right to vote is one gauge of equality, but by other measures, the American experiment remains stuck in the 19th century.

For DeVoe, a passion for fairness burned at a young age. She was 8 when her family attended a speech by Susan B. Anthony. When Anthony asked the crowd to stand if they supported women’s suffrage, the girl rose to her feet alone. Others hesitantly followed.

Emma Smith DeVoe
Washington Secretary of State archives

It set DeVoe on course for a life of activism, including stints as a voting-rights organizer in Idaho and Oregon before settling in Tacoma in 1905. As president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, she built momentum with tactics such as posters, rallies and parades. She organized a “Sufrage Special” train, recruiting prominent women of the era to give speeches along the route.

Without DeVoe’s devotion, it’s hard to imagine Washingtonians would have enshrined women’s right to vote in the state constitution in 1910, a full decade before the 19th Amendment was ratified by the states.

The amendment and its champions left a proud legacy in Pierce County. It can be seen in the many women who don’t take their democratic franchise lightly and have parlayed it into powerful leadership posts. Consider:

* Two of Tacoma’s most prestigious jobs — the elected mayor and appointed school superintendent — are both held by women (Victoria Woodards and Carla Santorno), who also happen to be women of color. A man hasn’t served as mayor since Bill Baarsma left office in 2009.

* Pierce County’s state legislative delegation is split almost evenly by gender: four male and four female senators, nine male and seven female representatives.

* The judges in Pierce County are also a nicely balanced mix: 17 men and 16 women (when District Court, Superior Court and the local district of the state Appeals Court are added up).

* Dixy Lee Ray, who was born in Tacoma and died on Fox Island, was elected Washington’s first female governor (1977-81) and only the nation’s fifth.

* State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, is a frontrunner to serve as the first female speaker of the Washington House of Representatives.

In Congress, on the other hand, less than 25 percent of the seats are held by women — one of several ceilings yet to be cracked, as Sen. Murray noted.

The suffragettes’ spirit is needed now to break down barriers in many walks of life, from business to academia to sports. Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. women’s national team soccer star who plays professionally for Tacoma-based Reign FC, embodies that spirit as a vocal spokeswoman demanding fair pay for female athletes.

“The incremental change we’ve seen is just not enough,” said Rapinoe, using the grand stage of the 2019 World Cup to criticize the U.S. Soccer Federation.

To be unsatisfied with incremental change is normal, and restlessness can be a healthy motivator.

But slow progress is sometimes all we have, whether the yard-by-yard fight for freedom by strong-willed men on the bloody beaches of Normandy or the state-by-state fight for suffrage by strong-willed women in the halls of government.

Both are worth commemorating with reverence this week. And with recognition that the work isn’t done.