Suffrage Centennial Kickoff emphasizes potential for progress


CW / Madison Verbrugge

Brynna Mitchner | @BrynnaOfficial, Contributing Writer

The Women and Gender Resource Center hosted a discussion on Thursday about women’s suffrage, the role of women in politics and the importance of representation.

Passionate panelists participated in a discussion on the status of women in politics as part of the Women and Gender Resource Center’s (WGRC) Women’s Suffrage Centennial Kickoff.

The panel consisted of Tuscaloosa City Councilwoman Raeven Howard, Regina Wagner of The University of Alabama’s political science department and Stacie Propst, executive director of Emerge Alabama. In attendance were the University of Alabama students and community members, SGA members and representatives of organizations related to women and policy.

The speakers and students in attendance recognized the importance of the event as a way to reach out to and empower students, many of whom could be new voters or developing an interest in politics.

Students like Sonny Karpe, a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering, have gotten involved in different political organizations on campus and become interested in the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Kickoff.

“I’ve been fairly politically active for the past two years,” Karpe said. “I’ve been pretty up to date on all the ins and outs of policy and the White House. Since I got here, I’ve been active on political campaigns regarding which people I liked.”

Karpe, who has been involved in congressional debates, initially didn’t want to be involved in politics but became passionate about the subject upon realizing the significance of the policies she was exploring and debating.

“This is the stuff, in a hundred years from now, that they’ll write history books on,” Karpe said. “Things that are happening right now will determine our future, and when I started actually debating the bills that go through Congress every day, I realized the significance of politics every day.”

Sarah Kimball Stephenson, who is getting her master’s degree in journalism, was inspired to help empower women to participate in politics during the Doug Jones special election in 2017. She decided to start a chapter of the League of Women Voters on campus and looked forward to attending the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Kickoff as a celebration of giving women a voice in politics.

“I hope this is a rally cry for women at Alabama who are politically involved because this upcoming election season is so incredibly important, and I hope that it falling on the 100th-year anniversary of women getting the right to vote will encourage more women voters to go out and use their voice and have it heard,” Stephenson said.

During the discussion, the panelists touched on a variety of topics and emphasized the need for more women in leadership roles and greater accountability in politics.

“I think if we want to have a gender-equal world, then we have to have women being a part of the decision-making process at every level,” Howard said. “So we absolutely have to see a change.”

Propst decided to become more involved in politics when she felt that the people holding office truly were not representing the interest of the people in the state of Alabama.

“There’s nothing more powerful than putting a woman into a position to tell the truth in front of a bunch of people,” Propst said. “And I’m enjoying doing that.”

As the executive director of Emerge Alabama, Propst recruits and trains Democratic women to run for public office. She explained that 40% of the women elected to state legislatures are Emerge women, emphasizing the importance of the support system that Emerge provides to enable women to feel prepared and qualified, as women have historically been discouraged from running for public office in ways that men have not. She cited the election of President Trump as a recent turning point for women’s views on qualifications for running for office.

“I think it’s started to change by seeing the most egregiously unqualified human being elected to the highest office in the world,” Propst said. “Basically the women are like, ‘Enough.’”

She discussed the propagandizing of politics by men in power to attempt to obstruct ordinary people and groups who have historically lacked representation from taking their places and how these long-standing processes have affected Alabama specifically.

“In Alabama, it’s not about party – it’s about power,” Propst said.

Wagner also discussed the importance of representation in leadership. She explained that role models are incredibly important for inspiring people, even across party lines, who have been underrepresented in leadership to run for office themselves.

“If you are actually seeing people in office, you know, that look like you, you get the idea that maybe you could be running for office,” Wagner said.

Throughout their conversations, all of the panelists expressed the importance of voting.

“If we don’t vote, if you’re not going to the polls, then you’re automatically voting against your own interest,” Howard said.

Propst discussed the systems in place in Alabama specifically that can discourage people from voting, even when those who are discouraged from voting are often the same people whose votes are needed to make changes.

“One of the reasons we get better turnouts is when people feel like it’s going to matter,” Propst said. “We also have to take the rigging out. I mean, I would say that a lot of people in Alabama think there probably has never been a free and fair vote in Alabama.”

Stephenson also had goals pertaining to women and policy and felt grateful for the progress that has already been made and the opportunities that exist today to expand that progress.

“The standard right now is men in office, and I would love to see just a lot more women setting an example that we can go up against these forces that have always been against us and make our own decisions for ourselves,” Stephenson said.

Propst also discussed the suffrage movement and how it was damaged by division – something that she hopes does not repeat within today’s efforts to empower women and that she strives to prevent through her work with Emerge Alabama.

“If you grew up in Alabama, you grew up in a segregated, racialized nightmare,” Propst said. “That is what it was for most of us. So, I would say that women changing Alabama would change the rest of the country and the world, ultimately.”