1920 vs 2020: What Has Changed and What Has Remained and What These Six Women Are Doing About It

1920 vs 2020: What Has Changed and What Has Remained and What These Six Women Are Doing About It

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. However, what is too often omitted from the retelling of such a celebrated milestone is that women of color had to wait over 20 years to have access to the same civic right. Native American women had to wait until 1947, Asian American women until 1952, and Black women waited until, obviously, the Civil Rights Movement in 1965. Yet, after all that strife to achieve equal voting rights, voter suppression is still very much prevalent in 2020, with the current conditions under the pandemic further disenfranchising communities of color from voting.


A group of six women–who are all connected through one of the world’s most prestigious women’s colleges, Barnard–independently organized a virtual reunion. The event gathered nearly 150 alumnae and friends to do what our beloved feminist legends like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Dolores Huerta, Florynce Rae Kennedy, and Wilma Mankiller taught them—learn from people on the ground and get disenfranchised voters to the polls (or mail-in ballots). 


The main event organizer of the group’s event was Nathalie Molina Niño, a Latina social entrepreneur, builder capitalist, author of LEAPFROG: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs, technologist, and the CEO of O³. She joined the Movement Voter Project as a senior advisor because she felt hopeless after Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race. After dedicating herself to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and recently in Warren’s presidential efforts, Nathalie was too disheartened to support another candidate. However, she knew that she still had to remain involved with the election.


Movement Voter Project (MVP) is a grassroots organization that raises funds for the people on the ground who mobilize communities of color and disenfranchised voters to fight voter suppression and ensure their votes count in the 2020 election and beyond. MVP primarily works to help donors move their money to thoroughly vetted, local community-based organizations in crucial swing states. 


While finishing her college education–over a decade after she dropped out of school to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams–at Columbia University, Nathalie was introduced to Kathryn Kolbert. At the time, Kolbert was the director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies across the street at Barnard College. Then she co-founded Entrepreneurs@Athena with Kolbert, a leading attorney on the landmark SCOTUS case, Parenthood v. Casey, that preserved the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1992. 


In her own words, the Latina powerhouse joined MVP to “build the Black, Indigenous and people of color-led infrastructure for democracy. Communities of color are the most impacted when democratic structures fail, and corruption runs rampant as it has now for years, so we need to be in the driver’s seat of envisioning and building a new kind of democracy.” 


The social entrepreneur and investor is no stranger to grassroots organizations focused on civic engagement and preserving civil rights. She is heavily involved with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led by Desmond Meade. He has been leading the charge in recovering the voting rights for hundreds of thousands of returning citizens from prison. Through MVP, she has helped Meade raise over $20M that went to paying what Florida calls the “ex-felon poll tax. Additionally, Nathalie also serves on the advisory boards of Vote, Run, Lead and the National Institute for Reproductive Health.


After seeing other MVP advisors doing events with college alumni groups, Nathalie gathered some of the greatest Barnard alumnae to join the movement. On the top of her contact list were: Lida Orzeck, co-founder of the beloved 40+-year-old iconic lingerie brand, Hanky Panky, “13 Reasons Why” producer Joy Gorman Wettels, Showtime’s SMILF creator Frankie Shaw, real estate agent for Hollywood A-listers Learka Bosnak, and Jada Hawkins, Harvard Business School student and a financial technology project manager. Upon Nathalie’s request, all five bold and brilliant Barnard alumnae joined! Together, they organized an independent reunion to galvanize other alumnae and friends to show up for the last stretch of what is turning out to be the most critical election of the century. 


All six women knew what was at stake during this year’s election and wanted their former classmates and colleagues to feel the same level of urgency. Also, like colleges and universities across the country, Barnard alumnae relations had to cancel all of its in-person events, making reconnecting with former classmates harder than ever before. Although the MVP event was not a school-sponsored or -organized event (because of Barnard’s non-partisan, not-for-profit status), the cause rekindled some relationships and sparked new ones as well.


Joy Gorman Wettels, the producer of social impact content, was a commuter student during the early-to-mid 90s who also worked full time, so she was not as involved with campus life as she wanted. But when the opportunity to be a part of the Barnard MVP group, she seized the chance to go back (virtually) to her alma mater.


According to Joy, being a MVP event committee member has “brought wonderful Barnard women like Frankie Shaw, Jada, and Lida into my life, [all of whom] I’d never have known otherwise,” she explains. “And I finally get the chance to be the feminist changemaker I wished to be in college when I was too overwhelmed with school and work and driving home every night to be super engaged.” During her time as a student, she produced the campus-farmed Columbia Varsity Show, an annual comedy show about campus life.


Throughout the 25 years since graduation, she kept one of her term papers from a class in contemporary Black American politics, which inspired the latest docuseries she’s been working on: Eyes on the Prize, a contemporary reimagining of the Civil Rights Era. Joy says, “my time at Barnard and Columbia, although I couldn’t have realized it back then, definitely shaped me as a producer of social impact content — it was ingrained in us to fight for equality and justice and have the ideals of our brave Barnard predecessors — protect women, raise one another up and share the light.”


In the very same Black American politics class, Joy met Learka, who was in the same graduating class as her. Keeping the teachings from that class close to mind, Learka is very disappointed at how polarized American society is getting, and feels like history is repeating itself for the worse. Her primary goal of joining in the MVP efforts was to “bring civility back into politics so that people can actually talk to each other—to unify our polarized nation.”


Every single woman on the committee spoke to the overt voter suppression system that targets minorities. Hanky Panky co-founder Lida, who went to Barnard in the mid-60s, is astonished at the extent of suppression that still exists today. She exclaims, “how dare this country continue to employ tactics to keep members of our society from easily and seamlessly voting due to systemic, barbaric racism? Voting rights continue to be unfairly denied to communities of color. That is my most immediately distressing concern.”


Lida’s work in racial and educational equality has a long track record. She began her career at the NYC Police Department, conducting research on and recommending changes to the Sex Crimes Unit detective’s interview process and forming a federally funded emergency medical services delivery within the unit. Now, she sits on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit organization focused on civil rights and public interest litigation. Lida is also a beloved trustee of Barnard and a board member of the International Organization for Women & Development.

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From the 60s to the early 2000s and mid 2010s, the MVP Barnard committee and its event brought together generations of Barnard women. These women knew that there was no time for generational differences when the fabric of our democracy clings by a thinning thread. Just at the right time, Joy has been working with director Frankie Shaw on an HBO limited series project based on Judy Blume’s Wifey. With Joy already committed to MVP, Frankie knew she had to get involved too.


For many, college was a turning point in your life when you realize how much high school history and civic lessons leave out. Frankie had the same reckoning as a college freshman. She explains, “when I arrived at Barnard, the world opened up to me. For the first time, I could have a broader conversation about the systems at play in our country and our world. I remember an email I wrote [to] my mom. I was furious about the state of the world. She called me an idealistic freshman. Sorry mom, but my attitude hasn’t changed!


Through organizing the event, Frankie got close with recent (2016) grad, Jada Hawkins, and compared their college experiences that were a decade apart. Jada is one of Nathalie’s most treasured mentee–and was a student advisor to Entrepreneurs@Athena and co-founded a student-run coding agency within the program–who Nathalie believes “will run the world one day.” Jada was the main emcee of the event and says she got involved because “I don’t want to look back on this time in history and think I should have done more. I want to be useful in the way that I can.” 


Jada further explains, “The structural supports planned into the constitution are eroding. The executive branch has assumed power from the legislative branch, and the checks don’t seem to be balanced. I know there’s a pandemic, an economic crisis, an increase in white supremacy, and a host of other issues, but I worry that without the right mechanisms in place we’ll be incapable of progressing beyond these challenges.”


It is through the spirit of Barnard and the womanpower of Nathalie that the MVP collaboration was as big of a success as it was. A whopping 143 alumnae and friends attended, and 86% of them donated that night—a ratio that no other MVP collegiate event has achieved.


Although women of color couldn’t exercise their right to vote 100 years ago when the 19th amendment passed (despite playing a big role in making a reality), the modern wave of feminism is all about intersectionality. Our ancestors of color have fought even harder to secure these rights for us, and it is up to the current generation to protect and preserve them. In the words of Florynce Kennedy—as promoted by Nancy Pelosi—”don’t agonize––organize!”


Sarah Kim is a freelance journalist and writer with cerebral palsy. Her work focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she has written for TIME, Betches, Teen Vogue, Glamour, I Weigh, Forbes, Greatist, and more. She is a graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Journalism School.

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