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Column: We cannot wait for history to happen

To the Valley News
Published: 8/17/2020 10:30:18 PM
Modified: 8/17/2020 10:30:13 PM

On Jan. 9, 1997, I was sworn in as governor of New Hampshire. It was one of the most memorable days of my life. Surrounded by my husband, daughters, elected officials and the Granite Staters I swore to serve, I became the first woman elected to the highest office in the state.

During my campaign, and on the day of my inauguration, I thought about the weight of that responsibility. As the first woman elected governor, I had an obligation not just to the women who would come after me but also to those who came before me. I stood on the shoulders of fearless, tireless women who refused to accept the status quo and who fought for years to secure women the right to vote and to have a place in society equal to men. Aug. 18, 1920 — the day the 19th Amendment was ratified and gave women the right to vote — wasn’t an ending to women’s suffrage or a beginning of the women’s rights movement. Rather, it was another chapter in our country’s history that continues today.

In my first inaugural address, I briefly told the story of Marilla Ricker, who tried to vote in her hometown of Dover, N.H., in 1870 and filed her candidacy for governor in 1910. Ricker didn’t ask for permission and she didn’t ask for forgiveness. She fought for women’s right to vote until her last breath, dying only months after the 19th Amendment was ratified, but not before she cast her first and only vote.

Her story is a reminder that we can’t wait for our society to be “ready,” and that change doesn’t come by waiting. It comes from acting.

Another great American who abided by a similar school of thought was Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress who smashed through barriers when she ran for president in 1972. A fierce proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, she delivered a memorable speech on the House floor declaring, “Legal discrimination between the sexes is, in almost every instance, founded on outmoded views of society and the pre-scientific beliefs about psychology and physiology. It is time to sweep away these relics of the past and set future generations free of them.

As I read Chisholm’s words from 50 years ago, I think about the strides that we’ve made since then to “set future generations free” of these outdated views. I think about women like Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, who’ve served as our nation’s top diplomats. I think about women like retired four-star Gen. Lori Robinson, a University of New Hampshire graduate who was the first woman to lead a U.S. military combatant command. I think about women like Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space, and the list goes on. I think that’s the most inspiring and important part in our collective history: It goes on.

When I delivered my inaugural address on that January morning in 1997, I wasn’t the only woman who had made history in that room. I stood beside Donna Sytek who, the month prior, became the first woman in New Hampshire to be elected speaker of the House. In the years since, I was re-elected governor twice and, in 2008, I became the first woman in New Hampshire elected to the U.S. Senate and the first woman in U.S. history to serve as both governor and senator. In true New Hampshire fashion, I was joined in that milestone by Sen. Maggie Hassan, who also served as governor and has joined me in the U.S. Senate.

It has now been 100 years since women were granted the right to vote and, while we’ve made strides, our work is far from over.

Today, it is up to us to remind the women and girls of tomorrow about Marilla Ricker, Shirley Chisholm and the many other women who didn’t wait for history to happen.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.

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