Libby Larsen on the 19th Amendment

Excerpted from "What Does the 19th Amendment Mean to Me?"

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting Caucasian American U.S. women citizens the right to vote. It was also the first year that my grandmother, a 24-year-old bookkeeper of the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, could step into a ballot box and express her independence in a country which, until then, had willingly assigned women to a life of diminution. She could handle the finances of a grand hotel, but she could not vote. In 1920 when she could vote, she did, along with 26.8 million women–and things began to change.

In 1950, the year I was born, my mother, a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in English, pondered her future. How could she flourish in this country? Many women’s property rights were still restricted by some states, e.g. women could not make contracts, including wills, could not sell property, own their own credit cards and in many cases, they could not control their own earnings. All of these were the legal rights of the woman’s husband or father. But my mother voted along with millions of women, and things continued to change.

What does the 19th Amendment mean to me? It means that in the late 1960s, when I started thinking of myself as a composer, I saw myself as a composer. Though at that time women could not personally own credit cards in our own names, though I couldn’t study with a woman composer or read about even one in music history books, or hear much music created and composed by women on rock, jazz, orchestra, opera, chamber music, or choral concerts, it didn’t mean I wouldn’t sometime in my future. In my generation, my gal-pals determined that we would study to become ourselves–professional in our work and confident in our own abilities to shape the future. We have the wind of the 19th Amendment at our back. As I listen to the fresh, vibrant, brilliant music of young women who are composing and performing today, I know what the 19th Amendment means to me.