INDIANAPOLIS—When Dr. Mary F. Thomas made an impassioned plea to Indiana lawmakers to grant women the right to vote and to reform the state’s property laws, she stood before an all-male legislature.
“As mothers, as wives, as daughters, as sisters, and lastly as human beings, alike responsible with yourselves to God for the correct use of the rights bestowed on us,” she said, “we come to you, humiliating as it may be to ask these rights at the hands of others possessing no more natural rights than ourselves.”
Thomas made that appeal in 1859 and was ignored. It would be another 61 years before women would have the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment and another year after that before the Indiana House had its first woman in its ranks—Julia Nelson, a Republican representing Muncie.
Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch will chair the first meeting Tuesday of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Photo by Emily Ketterer, TheStatehouseFile.com
As the nation celebrates 100 years of women’s suffrage, Indiana lawmakers created a commission to commemorate the event.
When Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch approached Rep. Sharon Negele with the idea to create a women’s suffrage commission, the Attica Republican knew she wanted to help.
After seeing other states, such as New York, with similar commissions in place, Crouch wanted to help create Indiana’s own.
“It’s important to not just celebrate and commemorate the people that started it,” she said. “But to also look to the future and develop some legacy projects that we can support that will encourage involvement by women.”
Negele took the lead in writing a bill to create the commission because she saw it as a way to connect current Hoosiers with those who helped the movement and wanted to get other female legislators on board. House Enrolled Act 1394, creating the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, passed the House and Senate by unanimous votes.
Rep. Karlee Macer, D-Indianapolis, co-sponsored the bill. As the first female legislator from House District 92, she said she wants people across the state to understand that it wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t vote.
“I think it is important for each state to recognize the importance of women,” she said. “We want to focus on making sure people have a good opportunity to learn about how this came about.”
The commission is composed of 17 members, seven of whom are appointed by the governor while the remaining members are appointed by other officeholders. For example, the lieutenant governor, the superintendent of public instruction and the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, will all have the opportunity to be on the commission, or appoint a designee.
The commission’s first meeting, to be chaired by Crouch, will be held Tuesday to begin planning for next year.
Rhea Cain, president of the League of Women Voters of Indianapolis, said the committee should be using the word commemorate and not celebrate because women are not 100% equal with men. Much work needs to be done before women are equal, she added.
“We need to realize that yes, we’ve come a long way, but we still have far to go,” she said.
The number of women holding public office in Indiana has grown substantially since Julia Nelson was elected. Today, 36 women serve in the General Assembly, or about one in four. In the House, there are 27 women out of the 100 legislators, and in the Senate, nine of 50 senators are women.
Those numbers do not reflect the Indiana’s overall population where 50.7% are women and 49.3% are men.
Negele said she believes every government body should reflects the people it represents.
“I would love to see more women involved in government,” she said. “Certainly, it has come a long way, but it certainly has room for improvement.”
Among the seven state-wide office holders, women fare better. Gov. Eric Holcomb and Attorney General Curtis Hill are the only men and the rest are women.
Crouch said that she enjoys the opportunity to work alongside other empowered women, especially in positions that have typically been held by men.
“To me, it is rewarding to serve alongside good people, whether they’re women or men,” she said. “Our elective bodies should be representative of the population that they represent.”
Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis. Photo by Abrahm Hurt, TheStatehouseFile.com
While the representation of women in government has grown over the years, Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, said efforts need to be made to ensure all women are recognized during the centennial.
Shackelford, chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said that while women got the right to vote in 1920, African-American women as well as men faced discrimination and restrictions on their voting rights.
“We need to make sure all women are involved with the whole celebration, and that it is inclusive to minority women also,” she said.
Shackelford said she hopes that the committee will be as diverse as the women and Indiana it represents.
Victoria Ratliff is a reporter for TheStaheouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.