What Does the 19th Amendment Mean to You? (Part 1)

This day, August 18, 2020, marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment–a momentous achievement for a select demographic, but what of those left behind by the 19th Amendment’s promise of liberation and equal representation?

Today’s anniversary provides an opportunity for the American Composers Forum and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN to acknowledge this historic moment while highlighting the complexity of women’s suffrage and exclusion to participation, even in 2020. To kick off this series, we asked Natalie Calma, JoAnn Falletta, Libby Larsen, Alysia Lee, Nebal Maysaud, Angélica Negrón, Paola Prestini, Aeryn Santillan, Alex Temple, and Wang Jie to respond to the prompt:

What does the 19th amendment mean to you?

Oppressive laws disproportionately affect those without an equal voice, and a resounding call for true equity unifies the responses below. These artists call on us to not retrospectively view the ratification of the 19th Amendment as a moment of arrival, but instead be deliberate in positioning it as one point on an ever-evolving continuum toward equal voting rights for all.

Natalie Calma

Natalie Calma--Photo courtesy of the artist

Natalie Calma–Photo courtesy of the artist

When I was in line to enter my U.S. naturalization ceremony, I noticed a group of volunteers that were giving the citizens-to-be a form to fill out. It was a form to register to vote. As they were getting closer, my hands started shaking, and my eyes started to fill with tears. The volunteers handed me my registration form, and I filled it out in a matter of seconds. I cried. You may not know this about me, but I am from Venezuela. Voting rights violations and rigged elections were all I knew, yet in school, it was drilled into my head that voting was not only a right, but it was also my duty and responsibility as a Venezuelan citizen to stand in line, mark my vote, and dip my pinky in blue ink to prove that I had voted.

For reasons that I will not dwell on right now, I had to move to the United States by myself when I was 15-years-old. As I watched the destruction of my country from afar, I saw people in the U.S. be casual about voting, with lazy remarks like, “I’m not even informed enough to vote.” It filled me with rage. I knew that if one day I was to become a U.S. citizen, I would never take voting for granted. I would finally have a voice in the foreign society that I was forced to grow up in. Eventually in high school, I learned about the 19th Amendment, and as a woman of color I thought, “how lovely for white women…” and I did not think of it again until today. 

JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta--Photo by Heather Bellini

JoAnn Falletta–Photo by Heather Bellini

As we celebrate the 19th Amendment to our Constitution, we mark the vital inclusion of the voices of women in the destiny of our country. That powerful chorus of voices has indeed made great things happen and brought about dramatic changes and improvements on all levels in this country. But one part of our world has been slow to experience that change. Our classical music profession, founded as it is on tradition and history, has certainly not been in the vanguard of the inclusion of the voices of women composers. Even as our orchestras have opened their doors to women as members through blind auditions, the extraordinary talent of women composers has been largely ignored.

During my ten seasons as music director of The Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, dedicated to the performance of orchestral music by women, we presented an impressive number of pieces from works of Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to Julia Perry and Florence Price, from Jennifer Higdon and Gabriela Lena Frank to Tania León and many, many others, in concerts and in recordings that were highly applauded and well reviewed. Our ultimate goal was our own redundancy–surely in a couple of decades, we thought, works by women would be integrated organically into the fabric of concert seasons, and we would have accomplished our mission. I don’t think that there is a musician among us who can state that the voices of women–promised equality by the 19th Amendment–have found that equality on our concert stages. On this 100th anniversary of that amendment, let us dedicate ourselves to the joyful advocacy of women composers in our country. There are incredible artistic treasures waiting to be resurrected, and great works to come from the women composers who are actively enriching and defining our collective musical soul.

Libby Larsen

Libby Larsen

Libby Larsen–Photo by Ann Marsden

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting Caucasian American U.S. women citizens the right to vote. It was also the first year that my grandmother, a 24-year-old bookkeeper of the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, could step into a ballot box and express her independence in a country which, until then, had willingly assigned women to a life of diminution. She could handle the finances of a grand hotel, but she could not vote. In 1920 when she could vote, she did, along with 26.8 million women–and things began to change.

In 1950, the year I was born, my mother, a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in English, pondered her future. How could she flourish in this country? Many women’s property rights were still restricted by some states, e.g. women could not make contracts, including wills, could not sell property, own their own credit cards and in many cases, they could not control their own earnings. All of these were the legal rights of the woman’s husband or father. But my mother voted along with millions of women, and things continued to change.

What does the 19th Amendment mean to me? It means that in the late 1960s, when I started thinking of myself as a composer, I saw myself as a composer. Though at that time women could not personally own credit cards in our own names, though I couldn’t study with a woman composer or read about even one in music history books, or hear much music created and composed by women on rock, jazz, orchestra, opera, chamber music, or choral concerts, it didn’t mean I wouldn’t sometime in my future. In my generation, my gal-pals determined that we would study to become ourselves–professional in our work and confident in our own abilities to shape the future. We have the wind of the 19th Amendment at our back. As I listen to the fresh, vibrant, brilliant music of young women who are composing and performing today, I know what the 19th Amendment means to me.

Alysia Lee

Alysia Lee--Photo courtesy of the artist

Alysia Lee–Photo courtesy of the artist

I do not celebrate the 19th Amendment. Instead, I celebrate Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Ida B. Wells. Mary Church Terrell. Harriet Forten Purvis. Ella Baker. Angela Davis. Stacey Abrams. I celebrate Black women that marched, organized, and fought for the voting rights of Black Americans.

In the coming months, I look forward to learning and elevating the story of Black suffragists alongside the young singers (girls and gender non-conforming youth) of Sister Cities Girlchoir (SCG). This choir season, SCG and Intercultural Journeys will collaborate on “When I Sing,” a year-long, NEA-sponsored project prompted by the celebrations of the 2020 centennial of women’s right to vote in the United States. SCG youth will work with composer Ruth Naomi Floyd and poet Denice Frohman (two women artists of color) to create artistic work that analyzes the women’s suffrage movement (and the schism created by racism) and uplifts a plan for the future of women-led social justice movements. Floyd and Frohman will facilitate intensive residencies and workshops to create an original work, performed in spring 2021 by the Girlchoir, that is grounded in history but dreams of a more inclusive, accessible future for all.

In spring 2021, SCG will rehearse the new, co-created works, and produce a final virtual performance featuring the new compositions alongside some repertoire selected by SCG leadership. Frohman and Floyd will also engage in public dialogue and discussion sessions, and will be featured as guest artists in the final production. I look forward to singing NEW music, collaboratively composed by the young leaders of SCG, and building a model for examining the ugly parts of American history to drive a youth-led vision for equity, inclusion, and justice for all.

Nebal Maysaud

Nebal Maysaud--Photo courtesy of the artist

Nebal Maysaud–Photo courtesy of the artist

I care most about the liberation of my community and the communities of our most oppressed. So when asked “what does the 19th Amendment mean to you?” I ponder–in what ways does this amendment impact my community? 

When framed as the event that permitted women to vote, its impact as a catalyst for collective gender enfranchisement seems obvious. But that’s not an accurate portrayal of our history. When we say women had the right to vote due to the 19th Amendment, we ignore that many women of color, especially Black women, were not included. 

The 19th Amendment partially serves as a warning that white women tend to demand their own freedom from patriarchy while abandoning women of color. Suffragettes famously ignored Black women as they fought for their right to vote. And that racist legacy carried to the modern day when 52% of white women voted for Donald Trump. Instead of centering the 19th Amendment, let’s de-emphasize white narratives in favor of a victim-centered approach that recognizes Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionalityLet’s center liberation

Liberation cannot occur unless we decolonize our historiography. In doing so, we should study the resilience and activism of BIPoC of marginalized (and colonized) genders. As a community of gender-defiant PoC, let’s ask ourselves this question: how can we use our ancestors’ legacies to carry the torch of resilience and liberation into the future? In this light, the right to vote is not a single event, but instead an everlasting movement.

Angélica Negrón

Angélica Negrón--Photo by Catalina Kulczar

Angélica Negrón–Photo by Catalina Kulczar

As positive and pivotal as the historical milestone of the 19th Amendment was in finally granting American white women the right to vote, I can’t help but think of the ones left behind. Most notably Black women who remained shut out of the polls for decades after the amendment’s ratification. And as a Puerto Rican woman, this is also a constant reminder that to this day, Puerto Ricans, even though we’re American citizens, can’t vote for the United States presidential elections or have voting representation in the U.S. Congress.

Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917 under the Jones Act–this way the U.S. could deploy them as troops during World War I. Because of the way U.S. law is written regarding voting rights of people born in U.S. territories, none of my family and friends that live in Puerto Rico can vote in the U.S. general elections. However, the results of this election significantly impact them and the lives of everyone on the island. This has been pretty evident through many years of colonial oppression, through the forced sterilizations of about one-third of Puerto Rican women between 1930-1970, through the thousands of bombings in Vieques (which was used for over 60 years by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range and testing ground), through an unmanageable debt that still hasn’t been audited, through unparalleled federal tax exemptions for U.S. corporations, but even more so through the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Maria and the poor government response that followed, which still affects Puerto Ricans to this day.

Paola Prestini

Paola Prestini--Photo by Caroline Tompkins

Paola Prestini–Photo by Caroline Tompkins

The 19th Amendment is the beginning of a conversation surrounding equity, something that we are still fighting for today. Over the past twenty years of my career, I’ve tried to be part of the progress in our field, and as a composer, I work to define my life as one that is composed of music, service, and action.

One of the most important aspects of National Sawdust, which I co-founded in 2015, is how it gave me a chance to reimagine the very systems I was trained in, and to strive for an aesthetic equity that doesn’t look at composition through a Western lens. With the Hildegard Competition, it was about eradicating entrance fees and letters of recommendation, installing peer mentorship, and building regenerative cycles–but it was also about explicitly “naming” the exclusion that exists often in “female”-based opportunities, and expanding the opportunity for female, trans, and nonbinary composers. With the Blueprint fellowship at the Juilliard School, we are working to address the need for female-identifying mentorship in conservatories, and to demystify the commissioning process. Working with my alma mater, it feels as if I’m going back in time, trying to create a world that I would have wanted to be part of when I was studying there.

I believe we must fight many fights during our lifetime. We are all together in this “Covid layer cake” (as my friend Helga Davis says), and we can rebuild, together, to make an inclusive world for all. There is much work to do.

Aeryn Santillan

Aeryn Santillan--Photo by Fallon Gallagher

Aeryn Santillan–Photo by Fallon Gallagher

While the 19th Amendment is celebrated in U.S. history as a milestone of equal rights for women, it doesn’t ensure the right to vote for all women. At face value, the 19th Amendment is great: “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.” In reality, it lacks the nuance to truly grant that right for all. We live in a country where voter suppression is a very real issue for many today—even as I write this, the President is openly trying to undermine and defund the United States Postal Service to suppress mail-in ballots during a global pandemic.

How can we celebrate the 19th Amendment when so many BIPOC people are still denied that right through immigration laws, ID laws that block indigenous peoples, inaccessibility for people with disabilities, and imprisonment and felony charges (which BIPOC people are disproportionately affected by). Voting is still for people of privilege–just ask anyone that’s ever worked in retail or the service industry if it would be feasible to take time off to vote. It’s not. The 19th Amendment is a marker on a path where the destination is liberation of voting rights for everyone, and we still have a long way to go.

Alex Temple

Alex Temple--Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka

Alex Temple–Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka

Some years ago, I was walking with my mom at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, MA. Our conversation soon turned to the question of what our lives might have been like if we’d lived during the American Revolution. As we talked, it became clear that I was imagining myself as the woman I am now, while she was assuming (perhaps correctly) that I would have been unable to transition in that era. This moment of disjunction points to the broader difficulty of projecting contemporary trans lives into the past.

What of the actual trans women who lived in the U.S. prior to the 19th Amendment? Lucy Hicks Anderson had the support of her parents and doctors, but had to go deep stealth and give up the rights that came with social maleness. Jennie June fled mainstream society entirely for the relative freedom of the New York City demimonde. Frances Thompson, a freedwoman who had to contend with both white-supremacist terrorism and a legal system that imprisoned her for “cross-dressing,” wouldn’t have gained the vote in 1920 even if she’d still been alive.

There are those who seek to portray trans women and feminists as opposing teams. In reality, most trans women are feminists. We know well that every blow dealt to patriarchal control brings us that much closer to being able to achieve gender euphoria without having to give up any of our rights, dignity, or autonomy in the process.

Wang Jie

Wang Jie--Photo courtesy of the artist

Wang Jie–Photo courtesy of the artist

It’s been a century since the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women, who constitute more than half the American population, have cast almost ten million more votes than men in recent elections. In contrast, the 2019-2020 concert season saw nearly 4,000 compositions presented by 15 leading orchestras worldwide, but only 142 of those works were composed by women. The world of classical music has much catching up to do. But how?

The moral message of the 19th Amendment was a game changer: it doesn’t matter how biased some people may be against women. As American citizens, collaboration on political actions across the gender divide is not a courtesy, but law. The next milestone was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, without which I would still be told today: you can’t vote because you look different from us. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks of my face. The law recognizes my legitimate citizen voice. Like the great James Baldwin, my pursuit of integrity is as valuable as all other Americans. It’s about what makes us human.

Why is it so difficult to judge a book within its covers? It takes time. It calls you to pay attention to the voice. Once there, you might overcome your bias. Like me, you might even create art. In that sense, I am different. My artistry is rooted in the strength and stamina that only these struggles have afforded me. That empowers me to hear your real voice. Can you hear mine?


UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.

We are thankful for our promotional partnership with the New York Philharmonic, whose Project 19 is the largest women-only commissioning project in history and was born of the conviction that an orchestra can participate in conversations about social imperatives and even change the status quo.