While Jill Lesh has always had the right to vote, her female ancestors didn’t. Lesh’s grandmother was 42 years old when the 19th Amendment was ratified. And her great-grandmother, born in 1858, never had the chance to cast a ballot.
So, when Lesh, who lives in Park City, goes to the voting booth today, she sees it as “a responsibility.”
“I wouldn’t be a part of democracy if I didn’t vote,” the 76-year-old said.
Lesh and other women are sharing their family’s suffrage history as part of Voterise’s Do It 4 Grandma initiative, which was launched on Mother’s Day. The goal, according to Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, the nonprofit’s director of operations, is to use grandmothers’ memories and personal stories to “lovingly peer pressure the younger generation of women to actually go out and vote” and “carry the torch that their foremothers … fought so hard to get.”
While Utah women won, lost and regained the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was ratified, equal suffrage wasn’t extended to women across the country until 1920. Even then, though, this applied mainly to white women, leaving out women of color who weren’t considered citizens at the time.
One hundred years ago, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed for ratification on Aug. 18, 1920. (Utah had already given its approval in 1919, thanks to a resolution proposed by lawmaker Elizabeth Hayward.) Eight days later, the U.S. Secretary of State certified the amendment, officially making it law.
The 19th 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.”
Today, there are 316,000 women in the Beehive State who are eligible but not registered to vote. Voterise has worked to reduce that number, as well as increase registration and voter turnout for 18- to 29-year-olds and other underrepresented groups. The nonprofit partnered with League of Women Voters for the Do It 4 Grandma program.
As of mid-August, the organization had about 15 women participating, including some who live outside of Utah. They’ve only had a handful of registrations so far, but Zitting-Goeckeritz said she hopes the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment will bring more attention and interest.
The grandmas can use whatever method they prefer, such as texts, calls, emails or posts on Instagram, to send their grandchildren to voterise.org, where they can sign up to vote in “less than three minutes,” Zitting-Goeckeritz said. If the women have a picture or story about their own grandmother, “we encourage them to share that as well,” she said.
Jill Lesh has held on to old photos of her grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived in the Midwest. The one of her great-grandmother, Cassie Bault Sullivan, shows her at age 17 on her wedding day. Bault Sullivan died in 1888 at the age of 30 and never got the chance to vote, according to Lesh.
The image of her grandmother, Julia Dangler Sullivan, is from when she was 18 years old. Dangler Sullivan had to wait more than two decades after that picture was taken before she could vote.
While Lesh grew up knowing her grandmother, who she described as a “strong and resourceful person,” the two never spoke about what it was like when women were enfranchised in 1920. But based on what she knows, Lesh is sure Dangler Sullivan would’ve “voted as soon as she could.”
“I just can’t imagine her not doing that,” she said.
Lesh’s own granddaughters are too young to vote right now. In her 30 years as a member of the League of Women Voters, though, Lesh said she estimates she’s helped register hundreds of people.
“I just see it as a part of a really important movement to empower women and voters,” she said.
When Marilyn Johnson, 77, registered her granddaughter and the young woman’s best friend to vote earlier this year in her Ogden kitchen, it was “thrilling,” she said.
“It’s very satisfying to do this because I feel like I’m doing something for my country that I love,” Johnson said.
Gerimae Sih, 75, of Park City, said she texted her grandchildren — because that’s the way they prefer to talk — about the program. Some of them were already registered, and Sih sent a link to the others to get signed up.
“Both got back to me, ‘We did it, Grammy,‘” Sih said. “...It was so easy.”
Sih thinks about how when she was in high school like her grandkids, “I didn’t know anything about politics,” she said. But now, she sees that the way “we change things (in the U.S.) is through the vote.”
“That’s what makes a democracy,” Sih said.
Zitting-Goeckeritz and her team came up with the idea for Do It 4 Grandma after hearing the story about the 24-year-old legislator who — influenced by his mom — broke a tie and cast the deciding vote that allowed Tennessee to ratify the 19th Amendment.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Harry T. Burn “was all set to vote no on suffrage,” Zitting-Goeckeritz said. He wore “a red rose in his lapel, the symbol of the anti-suffragists,” according to the National Park Service.
That changed when he read a letter from his mother delivered to him in the chamber. Febb Burn spent most of the letter telling her son about what was happening at home. But she also told him, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.”
“I’ve been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet,” she wrote.
Before ending her letter, Febb Burn added, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help” Carrie Chapman Catt, a national women’s suffragist leader and founder of the League of Women Voters.
When Harry Burn’s name was called, he surprised his peers and onlookers and voted “aye.”
“We were really inspired,” Zitting-Goeckeritz said.
The Voterise team tells people “all the time” about the power of their single vote. They point to stories like those of Harry and Febb Burns to show how much influence a person can have.
“This is a great example of when one vote really did matter,” Zitting-Goeckeritz said.
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.