This year our country celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the right to vote for women, although sadly, suffrage was only granted to white women in many state, and it would not be illegal to racially discriminate in voting rights until a much later movement precipitated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
My great-grandmother, born in 1870, Anna Everetta Beighley Harn, was a white woman and Wisconsin suffragist, who marched with other women for the right to vote. She married Stephen Douglas Harn at age 20, and together they had four children while living on their farm.
Her life changed overnight when her husband died in a buggy accident coming home one evening. Suddenly at age 34, she was a widow with 13-year-old twin daughters, an 11-year-old girl (my grandmother), and a 4-year-old son. She had to coordinate work on the farm that they owned, move to a different home in a bigger town so that her girls could attend a high school, and raise her family alone, yet she was deemed unworthy of the right to vote through it all.
She managed successfully to get the children all through secondary school. After each of her daughters was married and her son finished high school, she moved back to the farmhouse. When she received news that her daughter Bessie, one of the twins, had given birth to her first grandchild, she decided to risk the long journey to Chicago to visit them.
On this trip, she caught the Spanish flu and subsequently died, as did the local doctor who cared for her. Despite her activism in her younger years, her death in 1918 due to the pandemic meant that she missed the right to vote by less than two years.
About 100 years later, I, Annie’s great-granddaughter, Ellen Birkett Lindeen, follows in her footsteps in Illinois. As someone who has worked for peace, been active in the Episcopal Church and social justice, and taught human rights courses to college students, I was selected to attend the 64th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
This 2020 gathering of women celebrates the centennial of women’s right to vote, but also focuses on the 25th anniversary of 1995 Fourth World Council on Women, out of which came the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
In early March, the current outbreak had not yet been declared a pandemic, but thankfully those in leadership positions knew that an international conference of 22,000 people would be dangerous for everyone, so the event was delayed.
Although these two events are a century apart, I feel very connected to my great-grandmother. Her work for women’s suffrage in the United States was in Wisconsin. My work for gender equality and the empowerment of all women, everywhere in the world, is with the Episcopal Church in the United Nations.
Sadly, in this midst of this pandemic, I have become aware of another significant link between us. Her dream of realizing the right to vote was cut short by the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 which took her life. My effort to advocate for women’s rights has been temporarily blocked due to the Coronavirus of 2019-2020.
Disease knows no boundaries; a pandemic kills men, women and children more or less indiscriminately, but it also prevents the important fightfor equality by women who are still struggling to achieve full human rights.
Ms. Lindeenan emeritus professor at Waubonsee Community College.