"Exhibiting You" - Story

Why Vote?

By: Susan Griffin
Submitted: 08/26/2008

Why should women vote? As I search for words to answer this question, a memory from my own life comes to mind. Forty-five years ago, when I was just twenty, still in school and unmarried, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant. Though I was not ready to marry or have a child, in those years, abortion was still against the law. This did not stop many women from having abortions but it made the process dangerous.

Many of us asked friends and friends of friends for the name of someone, somewhere, who would do the procedure, clandestinely. We all knew the risks. Because those who performed abortions were not always doctors, and the conditions were often neither hygienic nor antiseptic, many women died from infection or hemorrhage. Though I was fortunate to find a pediatrician who performed the surgery in his office, he did not use anesthesia and, though he prescribed antibiotics, he could not take the risk of seeing his patients again. I ended up with an infection that had consequences for my health that lasted long afterward.

The candidates we elect this fall will affect all our lives in dramatic ways. Will we still have the right to choose an abortion and use contraception? Will we earn equal pay or face discrimination when we apply for a job, or admission to a university, medical and law school? So much, including the right to maternity leave, whether or not breast cancer research is funded, and if we have access to decent health care depends on all of our votes.

Even foreign policy affects our private lives. Wars draw our almost grown children to the battlefield, draining resources from the schools our younger children attend or from funds designated to repair a bridge, for example, that we drive our family across daily. And there is this too. By its actions, our government shapes the international moral climate. If we cause harm, even unintentionally, to unarmed civilians, including women and children, this will make us more vulnerable to being targets ourselves.

When I have the urge to retreat from the corrupt and cut-throat world of politics into a sweeter and saner private realm, I remember this: my own life and the lives of everyone I love depends on what I do as a citizen.

When the US Constitution was first written, women, people of color and working people were all excluded from the right to vote. We all had to fight for many years to be able to cast a ballot. Women finally won this right in 1920, but the battle is not over yet. Today we face another formidable barrier to voting: our own cynicism and despair.

The same arguments are repeated every year. Some declare that they do not want to choose between the lesser of two evils. Others say that once they are elected candidates do not live up to their campaign promises. These arguments imply that in a perfect system, each of us could vote for and elect a candidate who represents all our own opinions perfectly. Yet, there are countless points of view in our nation. Because democracy is a collaborative process it will never be perfect; we must all compromise.

This wish for a perfect candidate is often accompanied by the unstated assumption that the only responsibility a citizen has is to vote and then sit back and let the rulers do it all. Yet, though in one sense it would be nice if all you had to do to solve the world's problems was to push a magic button in the voting booth, if we handed all the power to create social change to a new set of rulers every few years, we would simply have a serial form of monarchy with all the dangers of tyranny, including human rights abuses.

Democracy is not a passive form of government. Those who are subject to a tyranny must yield both power and responsibility to the rulers and hope for the best. But democracy requires action. As proud as we are of our democracy, often it seems that Americans forget we are really the ones who rule here. Freedom of speech and the right to petition our government all serve personal expression, but they were written into the Bill of Rights principally so that, as citizens, we can participate in democracy by changing consciousness and shaping policy.

When candidates do not live up to their promises, we the people have to hold them accountable, a far easier task if you have voted and, even better, been active in a campaign. But what is also true is that social movements are way ahead of political leaders. The pro-choice movement is a good example of that. In 1968, just after the birth of my daughter, when I woke up to the trauma I had suffered years earlier, I wrote about the experience of illegal abortion. As the second wave of feminism arose, along with many women my age who had had similar experiences, I joined a small movement of doctors and social workers who had been trying to address the terrible human costs of illegal abortion. As the ranks of this movement swelled, and more women described terrible experiences they had kept secret, we held massive demonstrations. It was in this atmosphere that, five years later, the Supreme Court made abortion legal.

Democracy is empowering. Even when self-government requires compromise, if we lose something in the bargain we also gain a great deal. As we become more informed about the circumstances we share and learn about injustices that others may endure, what divides us has the potential to bring us closer together and at the same time give us self knowledge, providing a larger context and a far more dimensional understanding of our lives. As we reach out to each other, whether in unity or disagreement, we remember and re-member our deepest selves.

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