Suffragist Project Centennial Celebration Remarks

Given by Charlayne Hunter-Gault on August 20, 2020

Today, you have heard wonderful, inspiring words as we mark the 100th Anniversary of the Suffragists – women of history who insisted, against all odds, to be recognized in their fullness.

So it is that, as I give the benediction on today’s celebration, I am reminded of another woman in my history – my Grandmother. Shall we say a few generations ago here in Florida, my Grandfather was the preacher, but she was the Saint, and she insisted that, at an early age, I learn Bible verses. And like so many of them, they come to me in moments when I need them, like today, when I will recall one from Esther 4:14 –  

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Now I have come to this moment, not in a traditional royal position, but I have come to it in the position I regard as royal, one that I have held also for generations as a trained observer – or as I like to refer to myself as “A Servant of the People.” I report what I see as fair and balanced as I can. And what I am seeing today – beyond the fog of the viral pandemic – is, in the first instance, an historic moment when a woman of color has been selected for the first time as a Vice Presidential candidate on a major party ticket.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Photo by Sarah Haley.

My sense, as well as my hope, is that, regardless of party affiliation or outcome, women of all races and political affiliations will see this as a positive, historic step forward for women in general. While one could easily wonder why it took so long, I think it’s important to focus not only on that why, which would lead to a clear eyed assessment of the bumps in our road for women, but also, I would hope, women of all races, creeds, and colors will be informed by history about what has brought us this far on our way. 

They will also focus on the ongoing challenges that women of all races, creeds, and colors continue to face throughout our society. And while I don’t want to rain on this celebratory moment by articulating some of those challenges, what I do want to offer is a ray – no, not just a ray, but a rainbow of hope that those challenges can and will be overcome. What enabled the women we’ve celebrated here today to keep on keepin’ on despite the challenges they faced, was that they were outfitted with the armor of history – armor created by lessons of survival in some of the most challenging times; lessons that enabled them to withstand both the physical – as well as the mental – blows of discrimination and hate.

It is armor I wore that protected me at 19-years-old as I walked through a mob of white students shouting angry words at me, demanding I go home, as I was taking advantage of the work led by a lawyer, Constance Baker Motley, a woman of color, that resulted in the court order forcing the University of Georgia to end more than a century and a half of segregation and allow me in.

Video about Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes breaking racial barriers at University of Georgia.

Now fast forward – this kind of armor has enabled an unprecedented number of women to withstand misogynistic slings and arrows to run for office. This armor that has seen over 100 women sworn in to the 116th Congress. Also this past year, a record number of highly-qualified women ran for President, and over the past five years, a growing  number of women in senior leadership positions. 

Still, women continue to be underrepresented and undervalued at almost every level of society, and many – even those who have broken new ground – remain the objects of stereotypical vitriol, some of which we are hearing now in this political moment, spoken aloud with a megaphone on social and traditional media, without reservation or check – albeit thankfully, with some pushback. And yet, history teaches us about our armor that helps us process such ugliness toward us with grace.

Moreover, our armor lessons that will help us both survive and prosper; armor that will keep us whole as we face those and other challenges now and in the future, including the twin pandemics of a virus that has claimed so many lives and continues to wreak havoc among the living, and also the pandemic of inequality.  

Suffragists protest outside of Woodrow Wilson’s White House.

So, to return to Esther, I call on each of you to join me in your own royal way not to remain silent in such a time as this, but to speak up and support those who speak out on behalf of every woman in this country and around the world. I have travelled many of the world’s roads and have seen how we are indeed wrapped in a single garment of destiny. 

To that end, we must also continue to educate ourselves, and especially our young people, about our armor-creating history, all of our history, so that they realize the source of the armor they wear and their responsibility to polish it for all those who come after them. So they can join us in such a time as this – in a coalition of the generations that can share the armor-building stories of women – like those we’ve heard about today – to make a reality for all the dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we affirm at the ballot box when we vote for people who embrace those values.

Now, in a few days, that defining promise of our democracy, successfully embraced by the suffragettes, will be on trial, given the restrictions caused by the virus and the attending divisive politics. And we women, regardless of our politics, will be called on to honor that history, not only by voting ourselves, but by doing whatever is needed to help others exercise this precious, hard-fought right in our virtual world, or early at the polls. And that’s what our Ancestor John Lewis would surely call making “Good Trouble.” 

So, I thank you all for being here today and by your presence, clearly helping to keep hope alive!

Lucy Branham speaks at an outdoor meeting of the National Woman’s Party (1919).