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WOMEN SHOULD CHERISH THEIR RIGHT TO VOTE

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One day in the summer of 1978, I was knocking on doors in a small town in eastern Arkansas, trying to drum up support for my husband in the upcoming election for governor.

It was the middle of the day, and most of the people at home were older women - women who I assumed would be going to the polls. Imagine my surprise when one woman told me that her husband did the voting in their family. Another said that, since her husband's death, she hadn't known whom to vote for. And a third explained that she couldn't vote because she hadn't paid her poll tax, a requirement that had been outlawed years before.Seventeen years have passed since then, and as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage, women in America are hardly flocking to the polls to exercise their hard-won privileges.

A smaller percentage of women vote in national elections today than voted 30 years ago. Fewer than half go to the polls in non-presidential election years.

Sadly, many women feel that their vote doesn't really matter to their own futures or the future of our country.

It might also be that we have so many obligations in our everyday lives. Women are busy raising children, taking care of aging parents, holding jobs (often working longer hours for lower wages) and running households.

But even so, we all should be able to find the time to vote, especially now that registration can be done at the local department of motor vehicles, the government social services office, the public library or even through the mail.

We owe it to ourselves to make our voices heard. After all, women's suffrage did not come easily. It took 72 years of hard work.

It took the vision of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who launched the suffrage movement in 1848, and the courage of Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested, tried and fined for attempting to vote in the presidential election of 1872.

It took thousands of others - from seamstresses to socialites - who joined parades, pageants and picket lines on behalf of suffrage.

It took men, too. Men like Harry Burn, the young legislator from Tennessee who cast the decisive vote in favor of women's suffrage on Aug. 18, 1920, but only after receiving an admonishing letter from his mother.

Harry Burn took his mother's advice, and eight days later, on Aug. 26, 1920, suffrage was finally granted. But for months thereafter, Harry Burn had to travel the state guarded by a local blacksmith who carried a big hammer in his pocket.

He got off easy compared to some. Many who campaigned for suffrage went to jail for their cause.

To those Americans, voting was the most fundamental right of living in a democracy. It was essential to women's progress in the world. And that's why women before us fought so hard to achieve it.

Women's suffrage, finally granted with ratification of the 19th Amendment, was nothing short of a social revolution. With the vote, women in America could influence laws. They could have some say over their destinies.

When I travel overseas, I think about suffrage often. On several recent trips, I have met women who have been persecuted, imprisoned or even exiled for their efforts to gain basic legal and political rights for women.

And each time, I come home thankful for the blessings we Americans have.

This week, let's celebrate the anniversary of women's suffrage by taking stock of the sacrifices that so many women and men made on our behalf.

And let's remember the words of the great suffrage leaders.

As Sojourner Truth, the 19th century anti-slavery and women's rights advocate, put it: "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn this world upside down alone, then we together ought to be able to turn it right side up again."

But we can only do it if we vote.