BACKTALK | summer 2004
What the World Needs Now
is More Fannie Lou Hamers
Forty years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer, an African American woman from Mississippi and the daughter of sharecroppers, appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City and demanded to be given a seat at the table. The civil rights pioneer challenged the convention — and America — to live up to its ideals. “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings?” she asked the audience.
When I was growing up in the deep South, my family was active in the civil rights movement. My family taught us kids to value the right to vote and to protect it from ever being diluted or taken for granted. In this electoral season, it’s time for women to “stir the pots” and to utilize the power of their vote to help change the face of American politics.
Fannie Lou Hamer believed in expanding democracy. Twenty years after Hamer spoke in Atlantic City, women leaders gathered in San Francisco to demand that a woman get a place on the presidential ticket. Responding to the sentiment behind Hamer’s call for equality, the Democrats made history and Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated on a major ticket for the vice presidency.
Taking her place onstage at the 1984 convention, Gerry spoke to America. By choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second-highest ofﬁce, Gerry told the nation, “You sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.”
In 2004, we must again renew Fannie Lou Hamer’s challenge to America. This election year, women must gain more seats at the table and a place on the ticket, from the White House down to the schoolhouse. It’s time to “hurry history” and bring more women into the political pipeline.
If she were alive today, Fannie Lou would tell us we have signiﬁcant room for improvement. Though women make up a majority of the U.S. population, we represent only a fraction of its elected representatives. Out of the nearly 12,000 people elected to serve in Congress since the founding of our nation, only 215 have been women. Today, women make up only 14 percent of Congress. For the last 10 years, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, the ratio of women to men in state legislatures nationwide has hovered below one in four.
We must do more to improve the quality of representation in our democracy. We must start by registering women to vote. More than 15 million young women between the ages of 18 and 34 did not vote in 2000. For the modern women’s movement, this must become an urgent task: empower and educate young women to continue the push toward full equality.
This year, both parties must renew the commitment to female candidates. To date, there are about 20 women candidates for the Senate. Over 150 women will appear on the ballot for the U.S. House. At the gubernatorial level, where women have been gaining in recent years, at least seven women look to be strong candidates this election cycle.
My party, the Democrats, long a champion of diversity, has a special responsibility to recruit diverse candidates. It’s good for the party, and good for America. The Republicans, too, must work to diversify their party’s ranks. In today’s America, all white and all male just shouldn’t cut it anymore.
As parents, educators, mentors or friends, we must encourage women and minorities to run for elected office. In high schools, we must do a better job of cultivating leadership within the ranks of women and minorities. All of this, of course, requires eliminating our own prejudices. We must make every person in America feel he or she will not be limited by race or gender.
Throughout my life, I have seen barriers fall. From my earliest days growing up in Louisiana, I knew that I wanted to lead a presidential campaign — and it happened. That’s the great thing about America. Just when you think a door is closed, you and a way in.
This year, we must ask ourselves the same question that Fannie Lou Hamer asked in 1964: Is this America? And more importantly, is this the America we want it to be?
We must respond to Fannie Lou Hamer’s call for equality with our time, our money, our votes and our voices.