100 years ago, American women legally gained the right to vote. Yet today, many women and non-binary people in the U.S.—and around the world—still aren't counted at the polls. The 19th in 2020 is a short series about some of the obstacles they face.
August 18, 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting American women the constitutional right to vote. But the fight for true equity in voting wasn’t over then, and it still isn’t over today.
While countries where women are denied the right to vote are today few and far between, systemic gender inequality continues to be a problem in the U.S. and the world at large. The act of voting, even if it’s technically legal, is often fraught with logistical difficulties—whether it’s lack of safe transportation to the polls as an overseas Filipino worker in Saudi Arabia, inaccessible ballots for a visually impaired woman in Germany, or bureaucratic stipulations in Romania that render voting impossible for a mother of three. Even in countries where the voting process is mostly seamless, like South Korea, women still take issue with the lack of equitable representation in politics, and the larger patriarchal culture they encounter.
VICE spoke to women around the world about their experiences with voting and their relationship with the ballot box in 2020.
Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Wafaa, Egypt, 24
I was born into a family that doesn’t really care about politics and I think they’ve never voted in an election. That was before the January revolution—things changed dramatically after January 25, 2011. We had high hopes, we believed we'd get our country back, the country that we dreamed of, as my fellow Egyptians chanted “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice.”
Back then, I believed that my voice mattered. My family decided to go and vote in the first Presidential election after the revolution. I was counting the days until my 18th birthday, so I could use my right to vote. But by the time I turned 18, all my dreams were dashed.
When Abdel Fattah el Sisi was sworn into office as President of Egypt in June 2014, I was disappointed, and I wasn't alone. I don’t see him as a legitimate president: It was a military coup against the elected (and now deceased) president Mohamed Morsi. No matter how bad Morsi’s rule was, we had to wait for his term to come to an end. That’s what democracy meant to me. Year after year things in Egypt were getting worse, be it poor economic conditions, increasing unemployment and poverty rates, and the suppression of basic freedoms. I started to believe that we don’t matter as people or as women and that our voice is worthless.
Now, I’m 24 years old. I’ve still never voted and I’ve never tried to learn more about my constituency, even as a matter of curiosity. If elections alone can make a difference, then we wouldn't have ended up with such a government. Elections in Egypt have become just a formality; a way for the regime to present itself as legitimate, and to dupe us into believing that we can decide how this country is run. But the truth is that our voices don't really matter, no matter how many ballot boxes you put out there. I do dream of using my right to vote one day, but only once I believe that my vote will actually make a difference.
Maria, Philippine, 53
Even though we’re not in the Philippines, as overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), we still want to vote—and to vote for candidates who actually support us. We’ve been neglected for so many years. So for OFWs like me, many of whom are women, the opportunity to vote from another country and have our voices be heard is very important.
But here in Saudi Arabia, where I’ve been working for 19 years now, it’s quite difficult to vote, especially for women. It’s better now, but it was very hard in the past because there were stricter rules about segregating men and women. Just going to the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, where we vote, was an obstacle. For us to go to the embassy and vote, groups had to organize transportation for Filipino women. We couldn’t just carpool with Filipino men we’re not related to, so we relied on people who set up pickup points with vans we can ride in together.
During the 2016 Philippines Presidential Elections, for example, Saudi women weren’t allowed to drive yet. So if you’re with a group of other women, how could you go to the embassy to vote, if not through the shuttles provided? We couldn’t just ride with our male colleagues with cars because the mutawa [Islamic religious police] could catch us.
I didn’t vote during the last two elections, in 2016 and 2019, because I was left behind by the provided transportation. I couldn’t take a taxi because I was afraid to ride one alone. It's the same for many Filipino women here.
To be honest, I wasn't happy about not voting in the last two elections. I really wanted to vote for some candidates because they had good platforms that would benefit OFWs. Not being able to vote made me feel incomplete.
The Philippine government could help us by coordinating with our workplaces, like the hospital where I work, and allowing us to vote from there. About 60 percent of workers in our hospital—from the nurses to admins and lab technicians—are Filipino. There are thousands of Filipino women like me here. What’s two weeks, or one week, or three days of setting up a voting precinct?
Minji, South Korea, 30
Gender equality is an important issue in South Korea, in terms of work environment, sexual crimes, and household or childcare burden. However, people might say that it is pretty equal when it comes to the right to vote.
The power of women voters has become more significant. Hence, politicians have started to care about women voters since they hold a great deal of influence: De facto, in the last two presidential elections in 2017 and 2012, women voted more than men did.
Still, there aren’t enough politicians who speak out for women's rights and interests.
When I voted in April 2020—when a general election was conducted in the middle of the pandemic—I didn't need to worry about any of the technical aspects of voting. As a Korean citizen over the age of 18, I can vote, and my balloting share wasn’t different from anyone else’s. I didn't need to reschedule my classes or work thanks to the early voting system. During the early voting period, you can vote at any polling place in the country. If I had voted on election day, I would’ve needed to travel to vote at the designated polling place in the region where my legal address is.
But when I started to think about who I wanted to vote for, it was a different matter. Directly speaking, the number of male candidates in April's general election was about four times higher than female candidates. I don't think that only women can represent women. However, women's voices are inevitably silenced when politics still remains a male-dominated field.
Last Saturday, I was in a taxi with my friend Jee-yeon Heo, a marketing manager in Seoul, and we briefly spoke about being a woman in South Korea. The driver, who seemed like my father's age, inserted himself into our conversation. "All these difficulties are never solved because women aren’t interested in politics," he said. I politely told him women voted more than men in the past two presidential elections. As long as this stereotype about the relationship between women and politics exists, I think it’s too hasty to say that South Korea has achieved gender equality as it pertains to the right to vote.
Tiana, Singapore, 24
I don’t think gender issues are being discussed enough in local politics. In our last general election in July 2020, I felt that even the opposition party’s candidates were kind of vague when they discussed how they would address the gender pay gap and their respective plans for how they would “assist employers to close that gap.” I also feel that none of Singapore’s political parties include gender equality in the top in their list of issues to address. I think there are many other areas of gender discrimination that political parties can and should address, such as the disparity between men and women in higher managerial positions or certain industries, the idea of work-life balance, discrimination against mothers trying to re-enter the workforce, and a “boys’ club” culture at certain companies.
I do believe that gender discrimination in Singapore isn’t as bad as some other countries, but the other issue is that we haven’t made much progress recently. I worry that the issue has been neglected in local politics for too long. When you look at the rise of problems like the recent spate of sexual assault cases in universities, I’d say we’re treading on thin ice and might be even regressing. Because of how little progress has occurred in the past few years, I’ve become partly apathetic and rather dejected when I think about the future of gender equality in Singapore. I kind of understand why it hasn’t been a signature issue within the government, political parties, and the general public; other problems like socio-economic disparities and racial issues seem more urgent to address. But at the same time, it’s frustrating that things are as bad as they are. Women’s empowerment and gender equality are things we should’ve achieved long ago.
Jennifer, Germany, 41
A few weeks ago, I voted for the mayor in my town of Halle an der Saale. I’m incredibly happy that it was possible to do so even though I’m blind. We’ve advocated for a long time to have this kind of accessibility. In Germany, when people with visual impairment want to vote, ballot stencils have to be printed and we receive an audio CD a few weeks before the date of the election. Posters, visual campaigns, fliers touting political party programs in the mailbox—I never notice any of that.
I haven’t always been blind. In the beginning, when my eyes got worse and worse, I took someone with me to help me in the voting booth. But that doesn't always work, of course: Not everyone has a family member or a partner they can take into the voting booth, and if they do, they might not be politically compatible. If I took my father along with me and told him which boxes to check, we’d be arguing for weeks. Fortunately, my current partner is politically involved, like I am. I even trust him to cast my ballot by mail.
Problems often arise when visually impaired people try to vote. In Leipzig, they once changed the font size on the ballot papers so the names on the stencil shifted. Blind people accidentally chose the wrong person, voting for the Right candidate instead of the Green candidate; or their vote was rendered invalid entirely. It’s catastrophic, and I’m always scared something like this might happen. I always have to trust that everything is right.
Voting, in my opinion, also includes participating in political debates—and there are far too few people in politics who put issues of people with disabilities on their agenda. This was particularly noticeable during the COVID-19 crisis. But to get involved in politics or activism as a person with a disability, you need to have thick skin.
Nicoleta, Romania, 35
The day the 2019 Romanian presidential election took place, I was visiting my parents. I had a lot of housework to do, so in the evening when my father came back from work, I said, “Let’s go to the polls.” We went to the school where he usually votes, in Sector 6 [Editor’s Note: Bucharest is divided into six administrative sectors, each governed by their own mayor and city council]. I was hoping they would have a list for people who are unable to vote in their normal sector, but apparently no such list exists. If you’re from Bucharest, you have to vote in your own sector. At that point, it was too late to go to my polling station in Sector 3, where I now live. But my regular polling station is in downtown Bucharest, where I’d spent most of my life until six years ago. My family and I were living in a previously nationalized building which was reclaimed by its owner years after the fall of Communism, and we were evicted. My mother received social housing in Militari, a Sector 6 neighborhood, while I had to move to Sector 3, to a building that is basically a homeless shelter and miles away from my childhood home and polling station.
Moreover, I was also taking care of my three children that day. I have two boys—one is five, the other is seven—and a daughter who’s about a year old. I don’t own a car, so whenever I go out with them I have to carry her stroller while taking public transport. It’s very difficult. This was the first time I was unable to vote—but my mother’s social house and my shelter are far from my normal polling station downtown, I had a lot of work to do, I had to take care of my children, and I just couldn’t get there in time. In past elections, my husband helped me to get to the polls. That day he happened to be busy with something else.
Sonia, Mexico, 32
Since turning 18, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in Mexico’s electoral process three times: first in 2006, 2012, and again in 2018. Each time, we elect the president, deputies, and senators, as well as local mayors and the head of government.
In 2006, I exercised my vote freely and worked as a polling station official who was responsible for a specific ballot box in the counting process. At the time, the election clearly favored a specific political party, the centrist PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party)—or at least that was the expected result. But the conservative PAN (National Action Party) won the elections again. Regardless, I had no major problem with my position as a polling station official.
In 2012, that changed. As a journalist, I had to cover what would be the last six years of elections. Most citizens decided not to vote due to widespread corruption and lack of security. The polling booths, as I recall, were closely watched—not by the authorities, but by all those who bought votes.
My voting process was different. I went to a special polling booth where I had no great difficulty exercising my right to vote. Why a special polling booth, you ask? Because of my work as a reporter and the fact that I was unable to go to my usual polling place, The Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) arranged special spaces for those who couldn’t go to their corresponding polling places. The only requirement was to have your ID on you.
In 2018, when the course of Mexican history changed significantly, I wasn’t able to vote because I had to work. And it was an election that promised a great change, too: I’ve never seen so many people come out, not only to vote, but to enjoy what they called a "democratic fiesta" where the winner was Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
In recent years, I haven’t encountered any problems trying to vote in Mexico. But I still believe there are certain issues and taboos that still don’t allow voting to be completely free, especially regarding our civil rights.
Lucia, Argentina, 26
I was born in 1993, ten years after the return of democracy to Argentina. Growing up, voting was very important. My mom would take me with her to a homemade polling booth, and we’d take two ballots from each party so we could simulate voting. All my life, I had longed for the moment where I could vote for real.
My first election was in 2011, and I remember it as a moment of great joy. I was well-informed, sure of who I was voting for, and was proud to have reached that decision in a responsible way. In the years that followed, I gained more knowledge through my activism, and now that I’m older and I’ve experienced several general and parliamentary elections, I know how much is at stake at the polling booth.
Today, I understand that voting isn’t just about choosing a president, but also about ratifying our many convictions. For me, the most important election thus far was the last one. I had to enter adult life with a political model that trampled many rights in both congress and government. As a feminist, I saw very clearly that I vote for candidates and parties, but above all, for projects. As a feminist, I’ve come to understand that I have goals that must be pursued at the polling stations.
In 2019, I voted for candidates whose ideas more closely resemble my own and my idea of what is fair. In that sense, I view the act of voting much like my parents did when I was a child: a very valuable action which carries great power. It's something that we shouldn’t take for granted in Argentina, even if we’ve been a democracy for more than 30 years now.
Alejandra, Chile, 45
The idea of voting as a woman in Chile is full of stereotypes. Much is said about us: that we’re more conservative, that we vote for men, that we don’t support one another, that we’re being used by the Left, that we’re abortionists. However, I think that in recent years, we’ve once again proven we can also take part in politics from the streets. We’ve pushed for abortion to be legal on at least three grounds, raised our voices about issues like prenatal and postpartum care in emergency situations, even during a pandemic, and shouted from our balconies and patios that "patriarchy is a judge who judges us for being born" when we believe a judicial ruling to be unfair and the result of macho bias.
And when I say "we’ve once again proven," it’s because women in Chile weren’t allowed to vote until 1934, when we were granted the right to vote in municipal elections; it wasn’t until 1949 that women were granted the right to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. That 15-year gap shows how little our government trusts us, and further proves that victories are often taken away from us.
Much has been said about Gabriel González Videla, who was one of the radical presidents who gave women the right to vote, but he did it because he was president at the time. The right of women to vote was achieved by the feminist movement that fought for it since the 1920s, through a movement called MEMCH (Pro-Emancipation Movement of Chilean Women). One of its main leaders was Elena Caffarena, one of the first feminist lawyers in Chile. And she wasn’t even invited to the government service when the law itself was enacted.
A few days after the enactment of women's suffrage, Caffarena's name was removed from the ballot because she supposedly belonged to the Communist Party, something that she categorically denied many times. Her husband did belong to the Communist Party, and, for the same reason, she participated in demonstrations against the so-called Damned Law (Law of Permanent Defense of Democracy), whereby women and children were sent to a prison camp in Pisagua. Caffarena wrote and published a letter opposing the law and, therefore, was arbitrarily and unfairly removed from the electoral roll.
In Chile, voting is currently voluntary. I’ve always voted. When I turned 18, voting was mandatory, but you still had to register, so it was one of the first things I did when I came of age.