April 28, 2012
By Hilary Sherratt
“Vo vo votes ah ah aah
Whoa aa, won’t ta aah
Stop ha, ooo la la
Til we have suffrage!”
– “Bad Romance Til We Have Women’s Suffrage” (Soomo Publishing)
In a seminar on the history of marriage and the family in the modern West, my good friend shared this video. The song and dance, which parodies Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” chronicles the history of the women’s suffrage movement as part of a larger attempt to engage history students through popular media and culture. As I watched, I found myself wondering about a different lesson “Bad Romance Til We Have Women’s Suffrage” could teach students: the significance of political participation.
From Thomas Jefferson to Alice Paul, through the struggles over the 14th, the 19th and then the 26th Amendments, one of the most important conversations in American political history has been about the right and responsibility of citizens to participate in their own governance. Groups of citizens routinely petitioned the government for more access, for more engagement. As the right to vote has extended across racial, gender and age lines, citizens have been able to celebrate a picture of the political community in which “the people” are more fully represented—and share greater responsibility—because almost all can vote.
Yet, as I hit “replay” for the fifth time on the “Bad Romance” video, I wonder whether we have grown so accustomed to the right to vote that we no longer recognize it as a calling. We know that we could vote in the election, but filling out the paperwork seems a hassle, and time eludes us. We vaguely remember that voting is important; but we fail to connect with candidates and sense that the small white form or the push of the button on a screen never makes a difference. It can seem impossible, and perhaps even a bit distasteful, to engage with “Washington politics.”
And where would we even start to get involved? I wonder as I click on two of the 500 links to news stories about the 2012 presidential election. Twitter, Facebook, Politico, political blogging and viral videos offer an endless set of avenues for engagement. The wealth of information now available has made political participation more daunting, but daunting or not, we are called into this arena. We can applaud social media for bringing a variety of perspectives to the table for discussion; it helps us learn from new points of view. It will, of course, take more energy and time to read multiple sources. We are, however, called not only to engage in these issues, but also to engage with them thoughtfully. We can choose our sources carefully and listen for new voices, and by doing so we will gain a fuller picture of justice.
As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Citizenship claims, “Citizens share with governments the responsibility to uphold a just political community.” We share responsibility with our elected officials, with the presidential executive appointees, with local and federal judges, and with the whole spectrum of organizations and agencies that do the work of establishing justice in our community. We are quick to assume that there is a sharp divide between “us” – the neighbors, workers, and families – and “them” – the members of the political organism, the officials and executives. But our call is the same. We bear the same responsibility; if we are to be critical of politics, we must first be fully engaged in political life.
At some point during the “Bad Romance” video, the women sing the words of the 19th Amendment: “The rights of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The catchy melody aside, the power of these words is palpable. The right to vote was precious to these women, and to the many other groups who have petitioned for the same right over time. As the 2012 election approaches, I hope that we can regain a sense of the importance of voting and engaging in the political process. I hope we can hear once again the precious and powerful call to be citizens of our nation and participants in our government.
—Hilary Sherratt is a senior at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, studying Religion, Ethics and Politics. She blogs about faith and life and tweets at @hilarysherratt.