11 women on why voting for the first time was so powerful
It’s been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote. That means only a few generations before you—maybe your grandmother or great grandmother’s generation—women weren’t born with the right to elect their representatives.
I use the word “won” deliberately. Women weren’t given the right to vote—it took marches, protests, jail time, and much more to get here. Activists like Kitty Marshall and Alice Paul went to the extreme by smashing windows and vandalizing art, after which they and others were sent to prison where they continued their mission by going on hunger strikes. Other women, like Ida B. Wells, used the power of her writing to fight for the right to vote and to reveal the atrocities of racism, and faced death threats because of it.
No one should take the right to vote for granted, but especially those whose ancestors fought hard for the right to cast a ballot. Every day we see policies enacted that can cause harm to women and other marginalized groups, and they’re being put into place by the same types of men who kept women from voting in the first place. Voting not only allows you to have a voice on issues that affect you, but it’s also what women gave up so much for only a century ago.
I missed the cutoff to vote in the 2008 election by a few months. It was my senior year of high school, and I remember watching several of my classmates leaving class to vote for the first time. In 2012, I was in college and finally of age to vote. After I sent in my vote-by-mail ballot, my roommates and I stayed glued to the television all night as the results rolled in—and then celebrated with a bottle of champagne when Barack Obama won. I won’t forget how cool it was to know I played a part, however small, in making that happen.
On August 26th, we’ll celebrate Women’s Equality Day—the 98th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which officially granted women suffrage. To mark the occasion, HelloGiggles spoke with 11 women on what it was like to vote for the first time.
“There were so many potential firsts in the air.”
“My first presidential election was in 2008. I was 21 years old, and it was a thrilling time to vote—there were so many potential firsts in the air—from first female president (Hillary Clinton during the primaries), first Black president with Barack Obama, even first female vice president with Sarah Palin. I was attending college in New York and voting by mail for California, my home state. I remember feeling worried about getting all the paperwork done correctly, but I felt so excited all the same. When Obama won, New York City went wild. I was in my dorm room and could actually feel the rumble of the city cheering.”
“I am a proud American woman.”
“The first presidential election I was of age to vote in was 1968 at the age of 24. You had to be 21 at that time to vote and I had missed the previous election by one year. There were several candidates hoping to win the primaries and be chosen by their party. I was feeling quite grown up knowing I would finally be able to vote. I guess the fact that I was married with two children did not make me feel grown up enough. As soon as Robert F. Kennedy announced he would be running, I had my choice in hand. It is hard to remember all my reasons at that time, but I do remember his platform of racial and economic justice. He was strong on civil rights. But June 1968 changed all that when he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in California.
So it ended up I had to choose between Richard M. Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey. Since Mr. Humphrey was also strong on civil rights, I voted for him. I went to the local voting place, was handed a printed paper ballot, directed to a curtained area to place my check marks on the ballot. When done, walked to another table and put my secret ballot in the box. All ballots were counted by hand in the small town I lived in at that time. I left feeling quite proud of myself. It was a very close race, but Mr. Humphrey lost. This did not discourage me from voting in all presidential elections through the years. I have been on the winning side and the losing side. I study the issues, I study the candidates, I make my choice. I am a proud American woman.”
— Sandy Glass
“Finally able to have a voice.”
“The first time I was eligible to vote was actually the 2016 election. I was 20 years old and a senior in college and felt a sense of empowerment at being able to help elect the next leader at such a young age. It was also a monumental moment for my mother, as we had been naturalized in 2013 and were finally able to have a voice, as immigrant women, in the future of the nation.
I don’t believe we faced any barriers as women when it came to that actual process of voting, but we did understand that the future of women in the nation depended on our vote.”
— Fabiana Meléndez
“This is what made me finally feel like a proper grown-up.”
“I first voted in 1992 and I can still remember how excited I felt at the prospect. It was the first time I was old enough to vote and I had been very careful to ensure I was registered. I was at the polling station at first light, eager to get through the door and have my voice heard, because I felt it was important that everyone contributes to the running of their country.
For me, it was a rite of passage that surpassed that of graduating high school, learning to drive, or being old enough to drink. This is what made me finally feel like a proper grown-up. Although I’m over that now and understand there is no such thing as a proper grown-up!”
— Patricia Barnes
“I could barely believe my eyes.”
“I had just turned 21 in the fall of 2008 and, as you might imagine, I was pumped to not only vote for the president for the first time ever, but also the first Black president.
In college, I was too young to join my peers in voting during the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Disappointed with the way the election turned out (and at the time, not feeling as though there was anything I could do about it), I resolved myself to voting in every election as soon as I turned 18.
On November 4th, 2008, as I woke up early to stand in line at my local polling booth and submitted my ballot for Obama, I felt a surge of pride as people had fought for my right to vote twice over as a Black woman. I was a general news reporter for my hometown paper at the time, so I spent the rest of the day visiting other voting booths to interview citizens, and then I waited tirelessly for the results to come in late that night.
I got home just in time to see Obama share his victory speech in Chicago, and I could barely believe my eyes. There was a Black man, with his beautiful Black wife and adorable Black daughters, standing on stage as president of the United States.”
— L’Oreal Thompson Payton
‘There was something very personal and euphoric about being able to cast my vote.”
“Growing up in Texas, in a very conservative family, for years I felt like I couldn’t contribute to the larger political conversation, and that my more liberal views weren’t being represented by the voting coming from my family unit or from my community. I wasn’t able to vote in the 2004 election because of my age, and I was ready in 2008.
Growing up in an area where Republicans ruled and Democrats were the enemy, I didn’t necessarily feel barriers because I was a woman when I went to vote, but I did feel intimidated to not be voting for the same Republican candidate that everyone else around me seemed to be voting for. I can distinctly remember having conversations in line where it was completely assumed that I, like my counterparts, would be voting Republican on the docket. Once I cast my ballot, it was very liberating and I had such a sense of pride. There was something very personal and euphoric about being able to cast my vote and ultimately have a voice for the first time. I have voted in every election since and am super passionate as a Texan in making sure people turn out for voting. If the Republicans outnumber us at the polls every time, Texas will always be red.”
— Stephanie Freas
“It was honestly one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”
“It was November 2008. I was a junior in college and just 20 years old. I was utilizing the Western Undergraduate Exchange program and had just transferred to Central Washington University from a tiny Christian college in Riverside, California that just wasn’t a fit for me—or my progressive ideals.
I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, and Washington was absentee, which made it even more confusing for a first-time voter. Being a California resident but living in Washington for school really threw me off. To be a part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, which saved me thousands by only having to pay 1.5 times in-state tuition rather than out-of-state tuition, you were not allowed to gain residency in your new state. Either way, I registered from my off-campus apartment, got my absentee ballot, and voted away. I felt powerful, I felt intelligent, I felt engaged. It was honestly one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.
Just four years prior, at age 16, I volunteered to be a poll worker in my hometown of Clovis, California. Both in Clovis and in Ellensburg, Washington I was a rare Democrat. I remember being in high school and vehemently defending John Kerry against what seemed like every other student—even though we couldn’t vote quite yet. As I processed ballots at the polling station that day, I knew that I wanted to be involved in some way and was incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t vote. I processed so many ballots for President Bush and felt defeated, but also called to action, when he won his re-election. I knew as soon as I could vote I would make my voice heard.
Election night 2008 was one of the most exciting nights I had experienced. To be voting for the first time, for someone I truly loved and believed in—President Barack Obama—was transformative. My roommate and I went down to our local watering hole where there were burgers, beer, and a huge projector screen usually playing sports but that night it was just covering the election. I wore my ‘Peace, Love, Obama’ shirt proudly even though yet again I was a rare Democrat. I screamed like my team was winning the Super Bowl when President Barack Obama was declared the winner, and most people looked at me like I was crazy. I didn’t care. I had done my civic duty and my voice was heard. I’ll never forget it and have voted in every election since.”
— Nikki Henry
“I felt compelled to vote because so many people—Black and white—fought for me to have the right.”
“The first time I voted, I was a 19-year-old college student in 2008 marking my ballot to elect the first African American president. It was especially powerful because I thought about all those who came before me who faced barriers like harassment, beatings, death threats, and unfair tests when they just wanted their vote to count like everyone else’s. As a Black millennial, I felt compelled to vote because so many people—Black and white—fought for me to have the right. And the fact that I placed my first vote for a man of color made the experience feel like a full-circle moment for all those who came before me.”
— Danielle Bayard
“I’m still doing political singing 70 years later.”
“I voted for the first time in 1956 and don’t really remember the process. I was a student at UC Berkeley, and I remember hearing [Democratic presidential candidate Adlai] Stevenson give a campaign speech outdoors at the west end of campus. That’s who I voted for. I remember more about the election of 1948, when I was too young to vote, because my parents were campaigning for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, and I was much involved in that, going to rallies with them and singing campaign songs. I’m still doing political singing 70 years later.”
— Nancy Schimmel
“It felt satisfying to make my voice heard.”
“The first time I voted was in 2004, when George Bush was up for re-election against John Kerry. I was 20 years old and attending college at CSU, Chico.
It was really important to me that I voted because I couldn’t stand George Bush. I truly couldn’t fathom how anyone could want him re-elected, so it was shocking to me when I found out my boyfriend at the time was planning to vote for him. We headed down to the polls on campus together and I remember feeling so angry at him, I’m pretty sure it caused a fight. That wasn’t what caused us to break up down the line though, so I guess I got over it. It felt really amazing and empowering to fill out the ballot—even though I figured John Kerry was going to win California no matter what, it felt satisfying to make my voice heard. I would feel the same years later when I voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.”
— Esther Hallmeyer
“The first time that I filled out the ballot, I felt proud and empowered.”
“The first time that I voted was in the 1996 presidential election. I was 18 years old and I was very excited to cast my ballot in the voting booth. My mother used to take me into the voting booth when I was a child to ‘help’ her with the ballot. I was brought up with strong values, which included my civic duty to vote. I have voted in every election since I was eligible. The first time that I filled out the ballot, I felt proud and empowered. I knew the history of women’s voting rights, so I knew what a privilege it was.”
— Beth Shankle Anderson
These interviews have been edited and condensed.