By Tyler Barth
A century ago, the notion of a woman making a serious bid for president or vice-president would have been almost inconceivable.
“All of us who participated in organizing today’s event are passionate about recognizing the historic significance of women getting the right to vote. It’s hard to fathom that just 100 years ago, women were denied this most basic right,” Morris Township Mayor Cathy Wilson said Sunday at a Madison gathering marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
According to Leslie Bensley, executive director of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, the first White House picketers were a group of suffragettes in 1917, and among their number were two women from Morris County.
She recounted how women were arrested and jailed, and how their hunger strikes were forcibly stopped by guards force-feeding them.
In September 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sided with the suffragettes and supported the cause. It took another two years to pass the amendment. Women of color would not gain true voting rights until 1965.
Women hold 37 of New Jersey’s 120 state legislature seats, or 30.8 percent, slightly above the national average of 29.1 percent. New Jersey has elected one female governor, Christine Todd Whitman, who served from 1994 to 2001.
As of January 2019, 10 of the 75 New Jersey municipalities with populations above 30,000 had female mayors. Seven of Morris County’s 39 towns are led by women.
Emceed by Madison Borough Mayor Robert Conley, Sunday’s event featured speeches by Wilson, Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi, New Jersey NAACP Vice President Vanessa Brown and state Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-25th Dist.).
Also speaking were Donna Guariglia, president of the Morristown Area League of Women Voters, and Mendham Township Committeewoman Amalia Duarte. Also in attendance: Mendham Township Mayor Sarah Neibart, Randolph Mayor Chris Carey, and Chatham Township Deputy Mayor Tracy Hess.
Virtual forums for Morristown area candidates are being planned by the League of Women Voters, which supports voting by mail, said Guariglia.
Duarte said the voting anniversary merits commemoration, even in a pandemic, to celebrate progress and highlight the continued fight for women’s equality.
“The fight continues for equal pay, and greater representation of women in elected office on corporate boards and in jobs within traditionally male-dominated fields, whether it’s construction or engineering,” Duarte said.
The 90-minute event on the steps of the Madison Borough Hall drew about 50 spectators, who appeared particularly impressed by 15-year-old Penelope Jennings.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for leadership out there. They’re not always right in front of you, and most of the time they aren’t,” said the Madison High School student, who interns for Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.)
Jennings garnered enthusiastic applause for a speech addressing her experiences as an intern, as an organizer of a walkout at her middle school after the Parkland massacre, and as a participant in the March for Our Lives.
Despite the serious subject, there were some light moments on Sunday.
Several speeches were interrupted by nearby train whistles, church bells and a low flying airplane.
State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey’s (D-27th Dist.) speech was interrupted twice, to her amusement. Bensley chose to view a chiming church bell as a sign of support.
After Dunn led the Pledge of Allegiance, Mayor Conley got laughs by chiming
in: “That was my job. So let it be known that this isn’t the first time a man let us down…”
The ceremony’s message was summed up best, perhaps, by Jasey.
“In the future, there will be no female leaders, there will just be leaders,” Jasey said, quoting Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.