Mari Copeny, 13 eighth-grade student and water-rights activist
When I was little, my grandma and I used to hand out food at the food bank. So people who couldn’t afford groceries, they’d get basics to take home. I just thought it was a normal thing to do.
When the water stuff started happening in Flint, Mich., I was mad. All I wanted to do was take a bubble bath, but we couldn’t do that, because the water was giving us rashes.
When people are in need, you need to help them; in my family, it’s always been like that. So I started passing out water and baby wipes, stuff that people needed. And then I decided to write a letter to President Obama. I wanted to meet him so I could talk about the water crisis. It’s a nationwide issue. It’s not just Flint: It’s happening in a bunch of states all over America. We’re just the ones people know about. Not everywhere has a “Little Miss Flint” to get the attention of the president.
It’s very frustrating that I have to depend on other people to vote for things I care about. It makes me mad. I think kids have more sense than some of the adults — we should be allowed to vote! But it’s also important to be educated and not just follow what everyone else is doing.
And there are lots of things you can do even if you can’t vote. You can write letters. You can go to protests. You can post online to educate others. Anybody can make a difference.
As long as we stay focused, we can make change happen. One voice is powerful. Even if you’re a kid, your voice is still powerful. You have to use it.
Kiara Marshall, 27 model and advocate for disability rights
To me, voting means fighting. Nothing was given to us: to women, to people of color, to people with disabilities. As a Black, disabled woman, I sit at all three of those intersections.
I lost my leg when I was 10. I was hit by a white man, and it was his third D.U.I. During the trial, he admitted to drinking and driving. But now he’s out of prison, and I have a prosthetic, and I’m always going to have this pain.
Sometimes I do wonder if my vote is going to matter. But my ancestors fought for me to be able to vote, and so for me not to vote just because it’s inconvenient is a direct insult to the people who fought for me.
The first time I voted, I was very excited because I got to vote for President Barack Obama for his second term, but I remember going and not knowing what I was doing. I found myself just selecting names on the ballot because I didn’t realize there were other people you had to vote for — that’s something I never learned where I grew up in Texas. It was very intimidating.
I think right now one big thing we need to do is make voting more accessible. Sometimes you have to drive and drive and drive before you reach a voting station, and then you get there, and they close. It makes it so hard for people with disabilities, elderly people or people who can’t drive for whatever reason. And some people — like me — can’t stand in line for six hours.
America Ferrera, 36 actor and co-founder of Harness, a digital community of artists and activists
When I was 10 years old, Prop 187 — the California law banning undocumented immigrants from public education and other services — passed. I remember my mom pulling me aside before dropping me off at school and warning me that my teachers or other kids might ask me questions about where I’m from and whether or not I belong in this country. She reassured me: “You were born in this country. You are an American. You belong here, and nobody has the right to make you feel like you don’t.”
I had been taught my whole childhood that the beauty of this country is that we’re all created equal. I really believed that: It’s what I loved about my country. And so to have the curtain pulled back and understand the nuances to that promise, and the ways in which we are not all equally resourced or given access to find liberty, pursue our happiness and, in some cases, even just to live, was hard.
We need to create a culture in which people see that their voices and their lives matter. Because too many people in this country feel written off. They receive those messages every day in the news that they hear, in the lack of representation at every level of decision-making and power in this country. They’ve lost faith that change is going to come through a system that has historically ignored their voices.
Knowing our history, the good and the bad, is the first step. I want my children to love the country they live in, but I also want them to be clear-eyed about what that country is. Only from that place can you truly strive to make it better. And people need to understand how things that feel so mundane and boring — like filling out your census or voting for the smallest local office in your ZIP code — can make a real difference.
The fight for suffrage is not over. It wasn’t like: “Oh, great, women have access to the vote! Our democracy is now full and whole and healthy.” I spend a lot of time thinking about who still doesn’t have access to that system, especially in the Latinx community. We are such a growing part of this country, and yet there are true obstacles to our participation in this democracy. It’s all well and good to celebrate what has been achieved, but it’s also our responsibility to ask: What is the present-day fight?
Padma Lakshmi, 49 cookbook author and host and executive producer of “Top Chef” and “Taste the Nation”
Both my mother and my grandmother grew up in a very traditional South Indian culture, which was hugely misogynistic, but they both, in their own way, found a path for themselves to be productive and useful. They didn’t let the beliefs that others held about what women are capable of doing or not doing hold them back. It’s not that they didn’t understand the limitations that were placed on them by the culture they were living in, but they just went around it or under it.
I learned very quickly the most important lesson any person can learn: You cannot control the world in which you live. Often you cannot control what happens to you. You can only control your reaction.
I didn’t get my U.S. citizenship until my early 20s. I was working in Italy, and I purposefully came back to vote because I wanted to exercise my right. I think the first president I voted for was Bill Clinton. It was a big moment. I don’t think I’ve ever missed an election. If I’ve been abroad working or something, I’ve always found my way back.
It’s amazing to me that one of the few things I can point to that women can do on equal footing with men is vote — honestly, I wish we had made much more progress. I haven’t seen that much change. When I was in college, I remember watching with all of my roommates the Anita Hill hearings. Cut to two years ago, I have an 8-year-old child, I’m an established businessperson, and I’m sitting there watching TV during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and very little has changed. We still don’t think that a woman’s word is as valuable as a man’s.
I really wasn’t that politically active five or so years ago. It was only when I saw how threatened and how fragile all of the gains that women in my mother’s generation had made that I jumped to action. I really woke up. I don’t think I realized how precious and how vulnerable those rights that I enjoy are.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 59actor (“Veep,” “Seinfeld”) and a host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention
I think of voting as a very sacred act. When I was growing up, you would never say the words “I didn’t get a chance to vote” or “I forgot to vote.” They might as well have been swear words in our house. And when both my boys were little, I always took them with me to vote. I’d bring them into the booth and let them have the “I voted” sticker, because I saw it as a real badge of honor.
It’s a beautiful concept, each vote having exactly the same amount of power — woman, man, transgender, Black, white, brown, gay, straight. One vote each, all with exactly the same weight. Of course it doesn’t really work like that, which is why we have to fight to end voter suppression and get every citizen equal access to the ballot. I think sometimes people lose sight of the blood that’s been shed over the right to vote — quite a lot of it. It’s the most basic building block of our democracy.
I think we’re at a turning point in our own history where a lot of people are witnessing what’s going on and feeling within their own being that their lives and their livelihoods are on the line. And they’re not wrong to feel that way. For me, the essential thing is the environment. If you look closely at that one issue of the climate crisis, it’s like the tree that holds the limbs of every other issue, whether it’s systemic racism or social justice or health care or jobs or the economy.
I’m no policy expert. I have to work hard like everybody does to educate myself. But once you start learning about issues, you start to get mad, and there’s no better outlet for fury than grass-roots activism. That’s where you can go out and see things change for the better right in your own community, in your own backyard. And once you realize the difference you can make, you really can’t quit. It’s addicting. Which is a good thing.
Cindy McCain, 66 chair of the board of trustees of the McCain Institute for International Leadership
To me voting is the most important thing you can do as an American. It’s your right and your duty.
My mother and father came out of the Depression and World War II, and so voting was a big deal in our house. I remember when I was in elementary school, my dad came and got me out of class so that he and my mom could vote. They wanted me to see it. When I turned 18, I registered as a Democrat: Both of my parents were Democrats and, in Arizona, Democrats in those days were very conservative. I did my very best to vote in every election, and certainly once my husband — the late senator John McCain — began running, Election Day became a holiday for us in many ways. We’d go for lunch, we’d go to the movies — we had ourselves a day. And we made sure that when our sons were deployed, they got their absentee ballots.
We’re still struggling with equal pay and other issues that affect women on a daily basis. But look how far we’ve come! Our opinions, where we stand and what we want to have for our country are very important now, and we’re a constituency that has to be looked at.
Billie Jean King, 76 tennis champion and founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative
I love history. The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. More important, because of this, you can shape the future. And when we talk about the history of the vote, we need to say the truth, which is that white women got to vote. It’s very important that we hear the proper history of things and how tough it was for Black women to be able to vote, because of Jim Crow laws in the South.
I really want young people especially to understand what a privilege it is to vote, because it’s the one time that everyone’s equal. Whether you’re a billionaire or you’re very poor, when you vote, you have the same power. That’s what I love about it. Now that’s assuming of course that you have access and that your vote is counted, which is part of the challenge today.
I always say, if I hadn’t been a tennis player, I would have gone to law school. And I probably would have tried to be president of the United States. I always go for No. 1: I knew in one day that I wanted to be No. 1 in tennis. That’s my personality.
And we need more women to think like that. I want women to be ambitious. Enough of this, “Well, it’s OK for a guy to be ambitious, but not for a girl.” We need to have the same ambitions and wants as anybody else — go for it, and go for it big.
Just look at Congress: When I was born, in 1943, it was less than 1 percent women. And now we’ve finally gone over 20 percent. It’s still not good. We need Congress to look like America. We need more women, more people of color, people with disabilities. And that’s at the local level, too. Mayors and governors. C.E.O.s. Athletic directors. It’s all intertwined.
There’s a Coretta Scott King quote that’s really good about this: “You earn it and win it in every generation.” Otherwise it goes away when a generation drops the ball. We can’t drop the ball.
There’s always a faction of people that want to go backward, but for the first time in my life my hair is a little bit on fire that we can really have significant change. It’s going to be explosive. It’s going to be hard. But we can do this.
Madeleine Albright, 83 first female secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
I was asked at a dinner party to describe myself in six words and I said: worried optimist, problem solver, grateful American.
Having spent World War II in London during the Blitz and then, when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, coming to the United States in November 1948, when I was 11 years old, I grew up thinking that this was an amazing country — that there was no better democratic country than the United States. And I loved sitting behind a sign that said “the United States” when I was at the United Nations.
I became a citizen between my sophomore and junior years at Wellesley College. And for my first vote, I got to vote for President John F. Kennedy. There’s no question that, for me, my first vote was so emblematic of everything — of being in a free country, and of being able to help choose the president.
What I find interesting is the suffragists’ stick-to-it-iveness — the doggedness and the hard work of pushing the suffrage agenda forward and then recognizing that there were other issues that hadn’t been resolved and moving to the Equal Rights Amendment. There continue to be real questions in terms of equal pay for equal work, a recognition of women’s capabilities, and economic and political empowerment.
I spend a lot of time trying to analyze what democracy is, and voting is just the entry point. Democracy is never finished. It is an ongoing process that needs to be cherished and reinvigorated.
Betty White, 98 actor (“The Golden Girls,” “Hot in Cleveland”) and author
My mother and father were very civic-minded. We always discussed the issues of the day at the dinner table. We did not always agree with each other. Everyone had an opinion, and at times we had friendly arguments. And my parents took me to the polls to show me what was happening and the importance of being accountable.
I think people do not always appreciate or are aware of the power they have. It’s important to have an opinion. The individualities are what make America special, and we need to celebrate each one. Voting is a duty and a privilege. There is nothing more important in today’s world.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 100 years. Women are more involved in the daily activity of their communities. And women’s voices are listened to a lot more, because they have something important to say. I think about the fact that, when my mother was born, women were not able to vote in this country. How privileged we are to be living now.
Naomi Replansky, 102 poet and author of “Ring Song”
When I was a child, feminism came easily to me as a concept. I was used to the idea of strong independent women. My mother and two of her sisters, all immigrants from the pogroms of czarist Russia, worked in the world, doing teaching or office or social work. Two of my aunts marched in suffragist demonstrations.
There was a book in our apartment by a Swedish feminist, Ellen Key; I devoured it, as I devoured most books that came my way, and everything in that book seemed to me quite natural and sensible and inevitable. And I also knew, by reading, of the ridicule and the physical suffering (prison, force-feeding) of pioneer feminists.
When I was 10, in 1928, the campaign of Al Smith (then New York State governor) for president, against Herbert Hoover, was fierce. In my neighborhood, the East Bronx of New York, with a mixed population of Italians and Jews, mostly immigrants, all the kids were for Al Smith. Probably so were their parents. Election propaganda was chalk writings on the walls: “Hoover stinks on ice” was a popular slogan for us kids. Al Smith lost. Later, I learned that one of the main reasons he lost was because he was Catholic. That bigotry stuck in my puzzled, childish mind.
Bigotry was rife in those days. And it was shameless. And public. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were so many notorious injustices: the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti (the Italian immigrants who were executed in connection with a double murder though there was little evidence that they committed the crime), Jim Crow laws in the South, lack of civil liberties, residential segregation, the Scottsboro Nine (the nine Black youths falsely accused of raping two white women), Mississippi senator, Theodore Bilbo’s defense of the poll tax in order to depress Black votes. (How similar some of those election tactics are to today — gerrymandering, identity checks or other tests at registration, long lines, dirty tricks — and how painfully familiar are the enduring inequalities of race and class.)
And the years pass.
The day President Barack Obama won: Exhausted, exalted, we were walking home that evening through the streets of the Upper West Side of New York. Everyone we passed smiled at us, every stranger, and we smiled back. In our thoughts, we embraced the whole United States for that moment.
To quote Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven.” We were no longer young, but still alive; and it had been a long time.
Ruthie Tompson, 110 inker, painter and scene planner at Disney Animation Studio and one of the first women in Hollywood to join the camera union
Women should have a choice and a voice. I think women should vote, always. They should have their say in the family. They should have their say in life. Women do so much and need to be heard. We have a lot to say. Without women, there would not be children. And the world needs children. I’m definitely voting for as long as I can.