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Thinking back on the suffrage movement while working on health care reform….

By Dr. Lisa Plymate
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Last night I attended a community showing of “Iron Jawed Angels,” a film about the women’s suffrage movement.  This year, 2010, marks the centennial celebration of women’s right to vote in Washington State.  For the entire nation, this 100-year mark will not occur for another ten years; the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on account of sex was not ratified until 1919.

I was amazed by the history I did not remember or in some cases never even knew.  Did you recall that women really started working on obtaining voting rights in 1848 at the Seneca Falls convention in upstate New York?  The ‘iron jawed angels’ were a group of women who broke off from the main women’s movement in the early twentieth century, when they became impatient with the leadership who wanted to continue working state-by-state to achieve the vote.  The younger members felt this incremental, within-the-system approach was going nowhere; they led the charge in pushing for a federal Constitutional amendment.  In so doing, hundreds were thrown in jail.  Their leader went on a hunger strike.  And finally, at least partly as a direct result of their more radical actions, President Wilson pushed Congress to approve the amendment first through the House, then through the harder waters of the Senate – and then, of course, through ratification by 2/3 of the states.

While the film truly depicts the ‘suffering’ of the suffragettes, I also felt the parallels to what we are going through now in trying to achieve universal health care in this country.  Does it not seem amazing that it took over 72 years for women to get the vote?  It took true bravery for women to continue this fight.  The process was so familiar, after our last year of pushing to get health care reform through Congress.  We were overjoyed at the moment it passed.  Now we have to continue to fight to save what we’ve got, and we have to keep in mind our bigger goals of truly developing a just health care system, to further the health of everyone in this country.  So many of us take for granted our right to vote, including women. Nonetheless, it’s hard to fathom that people really worked – and indeed risked their lives – for this basic right.  So it was for the achievement of civil rights legislation as well.  It was good to be reminded that none of these important rights were achieved easily.

I’m not saying we should start picketing the White House, get thrown in jail or join hunger strikes.  Few of us would be want to be as singularly dedicated to any cause, or would feel these were the best tactics to use to reach our goals.  Yet those of us who care deeply about truly helping our patients, of ending health care disparities must find meaningful ways to work together to keep moving this process forward.  We have to fight regardless of who is President or which party leads Congress.  We cannot depend on either major political party to fully support us.  Soon we will be seeing both parties uniting to reduce the federal budget deficit, most likely by cutting back on benefits for the people who most need the help.  We have to push our way forward, asking about the moral deficit, of continuing to pay for wars while families are losing their homes and patients are losing their lives for lack of care.  

The issues can seem overwhelming.  If the new members of Congress proceed as they promise to not only dismantle health care reform, but also to disband the Environmental Protection Agency, so that we cannot begin to combat global warming, then what difference will a health reform bill make anyway?  And why can’t Congress see that ceasing funding of useless wars could pay for health care for everyone?

We have somehow to focus on the fights we care most about and know most about firsthand to have a significant impact. As a doctor, I choose to work on improving health, first and foremost.  I look back and I thank those ironclad angels for their work before me.  I am inspired by all they achieved in the face of extreme adversity.  We too can and must move forward. Together we have to figure out the best strategies to get where we want to go.  We cannot give up.  Too many before us fought bravely to get us this far along the path toward a truly just society.

 

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