The images were all drawn with care. Black and white portrayals of iconic women –– Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Mabel Ping Hua Lee and more –– all women of color and all suffragists. Drawn on posters, they were held by children standing quietly, patiently in front of the crowd gathered in MacDonald Park in Forest Hills. One by one women walked to the center of the tableau and took the microphone.
“I am in awe of their courage,” said Assemblymember-Elect for the 38th Assembly District (Woodhaven, Ridgewood, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and Glendale) and the first South Asian woman elected to office in New York state Jenifer Rajkumar about the suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote. “It’s because of them that we’re able to vote, that I stand here before you today as an assemblywoman elect. And to honor that courage, let’s all come together and make sure that everyone is included, everyone is treated fairly and with equality because there are people that are shut out.”
Rajkumar was one of nearly two dozen women who spoke on Wednesday evening at the Queens Central Democratic Club’s 19th Amendment Centennial Celebration. The event was the culmination of 9 Days of Action for women in politics hosted by the club. One after another, the women –– current, former, and aspiring lawmakers, activists, and community organizers –– took the microphone and talked about a woman who inspired them to action and what women gaining the right to vote through the 19th Amendment meant to them. They spoke about honoring the women of color and LGBT people too often left out of suffragist history, and about elevating the women of color and LGBT people on the front lines of politics and activism today. They encouraged everyone to vote, to run for office, to fill out the census –– to do anything to make sure they were seen, heard and counted. While the 19th Amendment was a huge advancement for women, it was an imperfect step in the right direction, they said, and there’s a lot of work left to do.
“Some women speaking today have run against each other in past elections and disagree strongly on many issues,” said Nina Kulkarni, the chairperson of community engagement for the Queens Central Democratic Club and one of the main organizers of the event. “But we all agree that the 19th Amendment was an important milestone in an unfinished journey.”
Queens, with its rich diversity, should be an example for the rest of the country of how people can work together and make sure progress for one group doesn’t need to come at the expense of another group, said State Senator Jessica Ramos (D- Jackson Heights, Corona, Astoria, Woodside, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst).
“That’s where the hard part comes in, where the hard work comes in but that’s where it counts the most,” Ramos said. “That’s where Queens stands up and shows the rest of the world how coexistence is done.”
Being the first to do something is important, said Acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, but making sure you aren’t the last is more important. As the city’s first Asian-American borough president, Lee said she hopes she inspires others to come after her.
“If I can do it, you can do it. And you probably can do it better than me,” she said.
When women run for office, they are held to higher and unnecessary standards, said City Councilmember Karen Koslowitz (D-Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill). For her the issue was that she was divorced. But she didn’t let that get in her way.
“For me it was the best thing. And I won!” she said eliciting a laugh from the crowd.
Women have made a lot of headway in politics, she said, but they need to keep the momentum. When she was first elected in 1991, there were 18 women on the New York City Council. Today there are only 12, she said.
“It’s disgraceful,” Koslowitz said.
District Leader for Assembly District 30 Part B Melissa Sklarz, one of New York City’s first transgender district leaders, said that the women being celebrated paved the way for people like her.
“All of us stand on their shoulders, including me,” she said.
The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920 and the years leading up to it were clouded by the pandemic, said Lynn Schulman, a city council candidate hoping to take over Koslowitz’s seat. But the suffragists persevered with their fight despite the Spanish Flu. They didn’t let that get in their way and neither should anyone today.
“I’m going to end with one word,” she said. “Vote, everyone, vote.”