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Worcester women’s suffrage group supports voting rights

By Greg Ellison

(July 30,2020) The echoes of the Women’s Suffrage Movement’s successful battle for the right to vote will be heard again in August, 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution.

The Suffrage Centennial Celebration Committee of Worcester County, which has delayed plans to mark the Aug. 26, 1920 passage of the amendment, will push its voter registration program instead.

Committee co-chairwoman Linda Linzey formed the county group, which started meeting last August, to assure the century-marker date was recognized.

“I reached out to all my contacts and said, ‘We’re going to start a community if you want to join us,’” she said.

Linzey, who retired to Ocean Pines in 2015, is a former educator and member of the National Women’s Studies Association, as well as program director for the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center in Baltimore.

Since relocating to the Eastern Shore, Linzey has built a small network of people with the aim of highlighting this milestone in the struggle for gender equality.

“I was always interested in women’s history,” she said. “When I went back to school to get my degree to teach, I was a woman’s studies minor.”

In addition to co-chairwoman Susan Buyer, also working with Linzey in the group are Ellen Hench, Sue Fox, Debbie Gousha, Vicky Wallace, Rosie Bean, Rebecca Samawicz, and Joy Braun.

Primarily comprised of Ocean Pines residents and not politically affiliated, Linzey said the women were united by a common passion to share the history of the Suffrage Movement, as well as to promote efforts to spur election turnout.

“We also wanted to educate the public to the critical importance of voting in the 2020 election,” she said.

Buyer, citing famous suffrage movement pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, said, “These women fought for your right to vote. Don’t waste your vote in 2020. We really are encouraging everyone, not just women, to realize that this is something that more than half of our population had to fight for very hard.”

The battle lines were drawn in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York at a convention promoting women’s rights.

“The people that started the Women’s Suffrage Movement didn’t even live to see it come to fruition,” she said.

Linzey said the constitution originally extended voting rights to a narrow segment of society.

“The constitution only included white men,” she said. “It didn’t include black men, whether they were free or slaves, or women at all.”

Restrictions for women went far beyond the inability to cast a ballot in the years after the U.S. declared independence from Britain.

“When a woman got married in those days, you gave up rights [and] … you couldn’t decide anything,” Linzey said. “Your husband could beat you with impunity and women were not even allowed or expected to speak in public.”

Linzey said the voting activism born at the Seneca Falls conference was the stock from which many other activist movements sprang, including Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and LGTBQ.

“Those are all within a long historical continuum of people trying to gain their full citizenship rights in the United States,” she said. “It was a fight to the very end and a lot of people died,” she said.

Some of the earliest women involved with equality issues, such as Lucy Stone, fought against slavery in addition to gender discrimination.

“They were originally abolitionist supporters,” Linzey said.

In some instances the fight was joined by male counterparts who also yearned to change the rigid, white-male-dominated structure of society.

“They weren’t all women,” she said. “They were joined by progressive men who realized that they were being disenfranchised also.”

That included statesman Frederick Douglas who was invited to speak at the Seneca Falls event.

After Suffrage Centennial Committee members participated in several events earlier this year, plans to mark the 100th anniversary was delayed after the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic.

Buyer said despite blustery temperatures a strong contingent was on hand for the Fourth annual Ocean City Women’s March in January.

“We had (about) 150 people turning out in the freezing cold,” she said. “People stayed until they were frozen.”

Along with guest speakers, the Boardwalk march also included voter registration efforts.

“We were able to get that in and a visit to the International Women’s Day celebration in Georgetown, Delaware,” she said. “It was sponsored by the Freeman Foundation on March 8.”

Buyer said after donning period clothing for the Georgetown venture in early March the group put a hold on activities slated for this summer.

“Then, at that point, life started closing down,” she said.

Linzey said the Suffrage Centennial Committee had anticipated staging a pair of events to celebrate the 100-year anniversary.

“On the 22 of August, over at Stephen Decatur Park in Berlin, we planned a huge family free fun day to celebrate and recognize the passage of the 19th Amendment,” she said.

Linzey said another gathering was scheduled on Aug. 26.

“We were going to have an event on the Boardwalk, probably partnering with the [Ocean City] Life Saving-Station Museum,” she said. “That’s all cancelled until next year.

“We’re definitely going to reschedule it for next year,” she said. “We didn’t want that day to go by without the community being reminded of the importance of that day.”

Buyer said the committee would continue researching historical records in the hopes of locating descendants of women who cast votes a century ago in Worcester County.

“We would love to find some,” she said.

Buyer said to this point a limited number of historical voting rolls have been located.

“The only voter register I have found for Worcester County for that year was the Bishopville area,” she said. “It did list about 100 women from the northern part of the county who voted in 1920.”

Linzey added that the voter rolls were multi-racial.

“We were surprised to find some African-American women had registered to vote in Bishopville,” she said. “You just think back in 1920 what an African-American female’s life was like and that she got herself to the polls to register.”

Linzey said if further information could be unearthed about early, particularly African-American, women voters in Worcester, their legacy could be honored with a monument or plaque.

“We haven’t been able to find any of those descendants but we’re still searching,” she said.

Linzey said the struggle to extend voting rights to women and minority groups didn’t end in 1920.

“Voting rights has always been a state thing,” she said. “Many of the states refused to recognize that the 19th Amendment passed.”

Linzey said the gradual shift to equality for other groups continued over the decades with passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, the Magnuson Act in 1943 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that granted Native Americans, Chinese Americans and African-Americans the ability to be participants in democracy.

“The Women’s Suffrage Movement was basically upper class white women,” she said.

Regardless of good intentions inequities existed within suffragette factions.

“The women in the original movement were products of their own upbringing and social class at the time,” she said. “They discriminated against the black women.”

Linzey said in some instances racial divides caused schisms, such as African-American women in Baltimore forming a splinter group to battle for voting rights.

“There are now suffrage heritage markers all around some of these places where meetings were held,” she said. “It’s a correct rewriting of history.”

For now, however, committee members are focused on promoting voter registration.

“We’re certainly working to encourage everyone to get out and vote,” Buyer said. “Voting rights is very much still a critical and hot issue.”