By Laurie Zazenski
Social workers have long been on the front lines of advancing democracy through voting rights advocacy. As we celebrate the 19th Amendment's centennial anniversary, School of Social Work alumni and students discuss the enduring connections between social work and democracy and share how they're working to promote equal access to voting.
Fighting for the Right to Vote
The fight for women’s suffrage – the right to vote in political elections – began during a movement for women’s rights in the mid-19th century. It took nearly a hundred years of ambition, persistence, and heroism, but on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was officially adopted. For the first time, American women were enfranchised, pushing them one step closer toward equality with men.
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth are some of the leaders most commonly associated with the women’s suffrage movement, but many others were also deeply involved, including social worker Alice Paul, a Quaker born in New Jersey who believed in gender equality. Even though Paul was a fundamental figure in women’s history, her story is often overlooked. Mae Silver ’58, social worker, historian, and author, stresses the importance of teaching Paul’s history to social work students. “She was not only extremely important in founding the National Women’s Party and getting us the right to vote, but she was also a social worker. If social work students want to understand women’s history, they need to know about her,” says Silver, whose work examines local history with a social work perspective.
In 1917, after many years advocating for women’s suffrage, Paul organized the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who courageously picketed in front of the White House, serving as a constant reminder of their cause. Paul and the Silent Sentinels endured regular harassment and abuse – and many were jailed – but they were steadfast in their beliefs. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson ultimately announced his support for women’s suffrage, and the amendment was later ratified.
Ensuring Equal Access
Just over a decade after women were given the right to vote, Dawn Clarke ’68 was born on a farm in rural Vermont. At a young age, Clarke was put in charge of working the farmland with her brother and grandfather while Clarke’s father was off fighting in World War II. It’s perhaps this experience that cultivated Clarke’s tireless work ethic and boundless energy as she continues to promote voter equality at 85 years old.
Clarke first got involved in voter services and registration when she joined the League of Women Voters New Jersey in the late 1970s. “The whole idea of trying to make democracy work made good sense to me as a social worker, so I jumped in and became very active with the League,” she says. Eventually, Clarke became the League’s Vice President of Voter Service. For a decade, she promoted voter services for the State and provided moderating and moderator training.
Today, she continues to be an active League member, registering voters and training groups to provide voter registration services. “We’ve made a lot of advances in New Jersey, but it’s important to keep co-opting people to ensure that everyone is registered and that they want to vote. We want to empower people who are ordinary citizens to register other people to vote.” In fact, Clarke and her colleagues regularly visit high schools throughout New Jersey and train 16- and 17-year-old students to register their 18-year-old peers to vote. “It’s a great way for them to become activists early on,” she says.
In addition, Clarke volunteers her time registering incoming students to vote at the School of Social Work’s MSW orientation, also explaining to them the importance of registering clients to vote.
One of Clarke’s most ambitious efforts is providing voter registration services for prisoner reentry programs. Those who are convicted of a felony in New Jersey lose their right to vote while imprisoned, but Clarke and other League members are making it their duty to ensure people understand that when they come off parole or probation, they can vote – they just have to re-register.
“Our goal is to make sure everyone knows their rights because there are a lot of people out there trying to suppress this population’s vote. I urge these individuals to go back to their communities and share this information. An awful lot of people are afraid to register, so they need to keep hearing from a reliable source that they can vote. And although we’re working on legislation to allow people who are on parole or probation to vote, we’re still not there,” she says.
Sharing Lessons for Future Generations
Despite the progress women have made in the last century, there is still much more work to be done. History continues to offer valuable lessons in the fight for democracy and social justice, but many fear that losing sight of the past will impact our ability to create change in the future.
“Everyone needs to understand the significance of history. If we don’t know what worked then, we’re going to have a tough time knowing how we can effect change today. Oftentimes we’ll win an issue, and then the next generation forgets how hard we fought for it. We have to continually be aware of our history,” says Clarke.
Silver echoes this sentiment, saying, “Being educated in the history of women’s rights, including stories of pioneers like Alice Paul, promotes empowerment. There are still some places where women are struggling for freedom and equality, so there’s a fight that still has to go on. We just have to keep working at it.”
Promoting Voting on Campus
BASW student Noelia Vicente ’20 is doing her part as this year’s Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Fellow at Rutgers School of Social Work. Last fall, she led several voter registration events and created presentations encouraging social work students to engage in voter services.
“Rutgers has a voting coalition, and my job is to incorporate Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission of voting rights advocacy, civic youth leadership, and voter registration education through a social work lens of issue-based advocacy,” she says. “As future social workers, it is important for students to be well versed in voting knowledge in case the opportunity arises to help clients register to vote.”
With a focus on the upcoming presidential election, Vicente is confident that the voter education initiatives being implemented will recapture the confidence of Americans – especially the younger population. Voter registration rates and voter turnout have been increasing slowly but steadily with people doing their own research on candidates who have the public’s interest in mind.
“This being said, it is challenging and continues to be an uphill battle getting people to realize it is their civic duty. But I believe we are in the middle of a crucial paradigm shift, and I’m hopeful for the future,” says Vicente.
Clarke, Silver, and Vicente’s work serves as a powerful reminder of the longstanding ties between social work and democracy. Social workers have played – and will continue to play – a big part in the fight for women’s equality and universal suffrage, especially for society’s most vulnerable populations and those who have been historically disenfranchised.