August 2020 is the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which decreed that the right of U.S. citizens could not be denied or abridged on account of sex. The commemoration inspires a collaboration between the Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program, History, Political Science, and Gender Studies with the course Sex, Race, and Voting Rights. Joint-listed as PACE-C 300, HIST-W 300, POLS-Y 300, and GNDR-G 302, this course can be taken as any of these course numbers.
What type of students would you encourage to enroll in this course? What qualities should they have? What will you expect of them?
Gamber: We encourage any student interested in the past, present, and future of voting rights, political participation, and political leadership to take this course. We don’t expect any prior knowledge, just a healthy curiosity and a willingness to participate in class discussions and activities.
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge or skills will they gain?
Gamber: Students will leave the course with a more nuanced and complex understanding of “democracy,” especially as it applies to gender and race. Who gets to vote? Who gets elected to public office? What does effective citizenship look like? Students will also hone their research, writing, presentation, and leadership skills.
What do you expect to be the most engaging or exciting assignment in this course?
Gamber: That’s a tough one. We’ll play the “Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman” role-playing game. We’ll have a variety of speakers who’ll address topics ranging from the women’s suffrage movement in Indiana to gender and political participation in Burkina Faso and Mali to the queer organization ACT UP’s activism during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We’ll offer a variety of experiential co-curricular activities—film screenings, lectures, workshops, and forums. And students will have the opportunity to explore a topic that interests them.
We wanted to showcase how 'democracy'—and our specific exploration of the 2020 Themester focus—cuts across disciplines.
This class has four different instructors and is cross-listed under several other titles. Why? What will each professor bring to the course?
Gamber: We wanted to showcase how “democracy”—and our specific exploration of the 2020 themester focus—cuts across disciplines.
We also wanted to give students the opportunity to connect the past and the present, the theoretical and the practical. For example, the History section of the class takes a deep dive into various historical elements of voting rights and the various interpretations of history; the Gender Studies portion of the course will include discussions of how the media represent women’s activism and how cultural ideas about race, gender, and the body influence beliefs about citizenship; the Political Science section will highlight current issues at an international level and how women overcome political barriers; and finally, the Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) section will focus on key elements of women’s leadership, advocacy, and public policy.
What can you tell me about Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) courses, their goal, and how they might differ from classes in other departments such as history, political science, and gender studies?
Napoli: The motto in the PACE program is to bring theory to practice, so a major focus of the program is to create opportunities to apply classroom learning beyond the sample gates. The program does this in a variety of ways, through our Voices for Democracy and Civility project, internships, co-curricular experiences and other opportunities.
For this interdisciplinary course, as well as in other PACE courses, the focus is for students to hear a variety of perspectives to be able to better formulate their own. When there is disagreement, students are encouraged to keep an open mind, ask questions, do research, and create a fuller understanding of the issue by listening to divergent perspectives.
The course description says your class will feature several guest speakers from the IU campus and Bloomington community. Who will these guest speakers be? What will they discuss?
Gamber: Almost every class session will feature at least one guest speaker. Here’s a sample: Professor Michael McGerr (History) on US suffrage movements and the 19th Amendment; Professor Maria Waqar (Political Science) on gender quotas and female legislators in Pakistan); Professor Amrita Myers (Gender Studies) on black women’s battles with white women to secure the vote even after the passage of the 19th amendment and current voter suppression; and IU Provost Lauren Robel and Ann Birch, President, League of Women Voters of Bloomington-Monroe on women’s leadership.
We’re often tempted to view the history of suffrage as a story of progress, but it’s not that simple.
How is knowledge about historical events concerning American suffrage relevant and important now?
Gamber: Ok, I’ll put on my historian’s hat. The right to vote has never been universal and it’s always been contested. We’re often tempted to view the history of suffrage as a story of progress, but it’s not that simple.
When the United States was founded in 1776, only men with property were eligible to vote (New Jersey, which allowed women to vote until 1807, is an intriguing exception). During the early nineteenth century, adult white men, even those without property, gained the right to vote in most states, but propertied black men and (in New Jersey’s case) women lost that right.
Women suffrage advocates fought a seventy-year battle that culminated in the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment. But some activists argued that white women should gain the vote because they were intellectually and morally superior to nonwhite people and immigrants; these women supported Jim Crow laws and white supremacist violence that barred black men from voting even though the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, guaranteed them that right.
Voter suppression continues to the present day, albeit in different forms. This isn’t just an American issues, it’s a global issue. Or consider the current presidential race. The Democrats started with an incredibly diverse slate of candidates, and they’re now down to two white heterosexual men in their seventies.
Why is it that many Americans still aren’t ready for a woman president? Some of the stereotypes we see applied to female presidential candidates—too “soft,” too “masculine,” “unlikeable,” “unqualified”—echo the arguments antisuffragists made one hundred years ago. As Mark Twain purportedly said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."