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Women continue battling political barriers in Arizona

Posted at 7:50 AM, Aug 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-25 10:50:14-04

This week marks 100 years since American women received the right to vote. It was a hard-fought battle and while Arizona passed the vote overwhelmingly, thousands of women still couldn't cast their ballots.

Some papers described the ratification of the suffrage amendment as "record rapid work by the legislature" in February 1920.

It was a historic moment and yet many women were purposefully still being kept away.

RELATED: How Arizona played a role in women's suffrage movement

Historian and Arizona State University Professor Heidi Osselaer said, "They could ask you to read a paragraph from the U.S. constitution. If you didn't do so to their liking, they keep you from voting."

She said Congress was blocking Arizona's statehood.

"The territory, to the committees that were looking into this, was there were too many men sitting in bars all day. And there were too many people that didn't speak English," Osselaer said.

She said this is why lawmakers put literacy barriers to keep Latinas and other women from voting, hoping it improved the state's chances -- and it worked.

Osselaer said, "There were a lot of Europeans as well who were not English -- native English speakers -- and they were naturalized and they were excluded as well. But those laws went on the books, the suffragettes went on record supporting that law, and it was a popular law."

Even though Native Americans received U.S. citizenship in 1924, they would be prevented from voting in Arizona until 1948. It would be nearly seven decades before Native American women were represented in the state senate when Jamescita Peshlakai was elected in 2016.

"As the first Native American woman in the state Senate, it's my job to teach folks and it's not about historical guilt or shame. It's about educating and it's about waking everybody up and saying, 'it's time to do the right thing,'" Senator Peshlakai said.

Despite taking part in the suffrage movement, marching in parades and passing out pamphlets, Black women would also have to wait decades for their right to vote. That came in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, which also erased the literacy law on the books.

Representative Dr. Geraldine Peten is currently the only African American woman serving in Arizona's state legislature. She said, "We were going through Jim Crow laws, Black codes, incredible voter suppression, which ironically is very similar to what we are going through now."

She added that women of color in political offices still face racism from voters and even fellow lawmakers.

"It's not overt, but you know those little microaggressions that happen every day in our workplaces -- they are there. So in terms of being comfortable and totally welcomed -- no. We still have some of those fights that we've always had. And we're still fighting to overcome them. But we will not let them discourage us," Dr. Peten said.

Roughly 80 years after the ratification of the Suffrage Amendment in Arizona, Rose Mofford made history as the first female governor of the state.

But in the late 1990s Arizona was thrust into the national spotlight when five women were elected to the state's highest offices.

Governor Jane Dee Hull, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, State Attorney General Janet Napolitano, Treasurer Carol Springer and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan were dubbed the 'Fab Five.'

Osselaer recalled, "There are great photos of them and Sandra Day O'Connor came out to issue the office and Polly Rosenbaum, the longest-serving legislator, was there as a guest of honor. And it was this moment where you go, 'wow... all the top five executives are female. Wow... what's going to happen next?'"

In a statement to ABC15, former Governor Jan Brewer said in part: "From being one of the first states to send a woman to congress in 1932 to electing the 'fab five' where five women were elected simultaneously to hold the five highest public offices in Arizona, the women in our state have always led the way for others to follow."

The 2018 election would be another major year for Arizona women in politics.

Kyrsten Synema became Arizona's first female senator followed by Martha McSally shortly after.

Women won races for Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Kimberly Yee became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to statewide office when she won the State Treasurer's race.

Yee told ABC15, "Well, back in 2010, I decided to run for office. And it was really a woman asking me to consider it. I had never considered that before."

She fought back against her naysayers. Yee said, "You just have to stand firmly on the ground to that we are here as women to have a voice at the table and we certainly can't be pressured when someone tries to make that effort."

Women are still breaking through barriers and Treasurer Yee said she's hopeful there will be more women candidates for office in the future.

"How important it is that we can make that difference when we do engage, when we do to step up to the plate, and we do have that voice at the table. Really, it's such an important task that we really just have to continue to encourage women to make those choices," Yee concluded.