This year marks milestone anniversaries for voting rights. It’s been 150 years since the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted Black men the right to vote, and 100 years since the franchise was extended to women through the 19th Amendment.
“The passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of a battle that had been going on for almost 80 years. This was a long, protracted fight, and it ties into why voting matters, particularly in a presidential election year,” Forrant says. “The Civil Rights Movement and getting the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 was, again, a long struggle.”
Speakers include UMass Lowell faculty and community leaders – some of whom are still engaged in the fight for broader representation. Forrant will lead off the series on Oct. 6 with an overview of Massachusetts and U.S. voting rights history. Four webinars will be held before the Nov. 3 election, and two after.
Lawrence and Boston had much more active suffrage movements – and more anti-suffrage opposition, too, Horrocks says. But women in Lowell were very politically active in other ways, including in the labor rights and temperance movements and as members of the school committee, she says.
“Nearly 50 years before the passage of universal suffrage, women were able to take part in elections for schools because it was considered appropriate in their role as mothers,” she says. “As soon as suffrage passed, women were running for seats, and women were really mobilizing to register other women as voters.”
In the past, all Lowell city councilors and school committee members were elected “at large” – and under that system, nearly all of those elected have been white, even though 49 percent of city residents are people of color. Kim says that was clearly illegal under previous federal court rulings.
“To me, it was so clear and obvious that there was a stark disparity in representation,” she says.
So Kim volunteered as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with 10 other Asian American and Latino residents. They were represented by Sellstrom and attorneys from Ropes & Gray, a Boston firm.
Last year, the two sides reached a consent decree. Now, the city has agreed to adopt a system in which some candidates run at large and others run within a district, including two city council districts and one school committee district where voting-age people of color comprise a majority. The district map, which is being drawn by an independent consultant with input from community organizations, will take effect for the 2021 city elections.
“That journey from immigrant to U.S. citizen is long and time-consuming,” St. Pierre says. “Having that privilege from birth, we don’t always realize what that means.”
And they will talk about another milestone: Next year marks 50 years since the 26th Amendment passed, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 at a time when 18-year-old men were being drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Neagle won Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year in 2019 for his leadership on the eighth-grade civics curriculum, while Foster played a major role in the unsuccessful push to lower the voting age in Lowell elections to 17.
Throughout the series, teachers should find lots of good ideas and resources that they can incorporate into their history, social studies and civics classes, Forrant says. But most of all, he hopes that educators can help their students go beyond the anniversary celebrations to take the long view of history and social movements that expand rights to more people.
“In the moment we’re in, with an election that’s so fraught and a country that’s so divided, we need to see that these institutions, and voting in particular, give us the power to affect history and to make social change,” he says.