A soft, familiar melody rose from the center of South Park on Saturday where a group of 30 men and women crowded in the shade to escape the heat of the mid-afternoon sun.
The tune was “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but the words were those that suffragettes in Kansas sang in the early 1900s. As more people jumped in, the song reached a crescendo near its end:
It’s the cry of wives and mothers,
Pealing forth on every hand,
It’s the cry of all the sisters,
And the daughters of the land,
A cry for woman’s freedom
That the world shall understand,
As they go marching on.
The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was adopted 93 years ago, on Aug. 26, 1920. To commemorate this landmark, people gathered at South Park to sing suffragette songs, hear from several speakers and watch a dramatic reading based on the Seneca Falls Convention, the first American women’s rights convention, held in 1848.
Margaret Arnold, membership chair for the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County, opened the event, saying that the gathering would also serve to draw attention to contemporary voting-rights issues.
“We have many things to celebrate but also many needs to meet,” Arnold said.
State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, explained the effects of the proof-of-citizenship requirement that took effect in January.
Approximately 14,000 voter registration applications are in limbo because election officials have not yet received acceptable documents to fulfill the requirement. Without proof, ballots from these voters will not be legally valid.
“Certainly we want to celebrate the past, but I think the best way to celebrate is to build a more inclusive future,” Francisco said. “I’m sorry to report as a member of the legislature that is not necessarily the direction we are taking.”
Jamie Shew, Douglas County Clerk, followed with a brief history of voting in Kansas: The state constitution allowed women to vote in school elections as early as 1861, women won municipal suffrage in 1887, and in 1912, Kansas became the eighth state to approve women’s suffrage.
Shew also mentioned the proof-of-citizenship requirement and the county’s efforts to register more voters.
He said the county is starting a new campaign to educate voters on proof-of-citizenship by mailing postcards and making phone calls, and he asked attendees to help with outreach.
“We cannot give up because we have setbacks now,” Shew said.
The League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County, along with the Kaw Valley Older Women’s League, the Kansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, MadreLawrence and the Douglas County National Organization for Women, sponsored the celebration.