It was a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair in 1992. Surrounded by fried cheese curds, walleye on a stick and beautiful buttery busts of beauty pageant contestants, I and hundreds of other immigrants were sworn in as new citizens of the United States of America. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I raised my right hand and swore allegiance. I was 18 years old and I felt like a dragon breathing fire for the first time. Why? I would vote in the presidential election in the fall, and couldn’t wait. That year, Ross Perot, Bill Clinton and George Bush were all on the ballot.
I took my voting responsibility seriously, and independently researched the candidates beyond mainstream media. Now this was a hard task back in the day because we didn’t have Google. In fact, the World Wide Web was just in its infancy.
Voting was important to me for two reasons. The first reason was that I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, majoring in political science, and felt it was my duty as a young person to get involved with civic activities, from door knocking for local political candidates to mentoring youths. The second reason was because of my family’s history. We fled to the U.S. in 1980 from Laos because of the Vietnam War. Most of the people, including the Hmong who lived in Laos before war, could not vote because the country was a monarchy. I felt like a dragon on fire because by voting I was casting the ballot for all my people who never had the right to vote before. It didn’t matter really whom I was voting for; just the act of voting was empowering my people, giving them a voice.
Why not take this seriously?
Over the years when I hear about low election turnouts, especially at local elections, I am sad and frustrated. But I get especially angry when I hear about women of color not voting. I want to stand on Interstate 94 with a sign telling women of color drivers that millions of women worldwide are tortured, raped and murdered so they can vote, so why are my color sisters not taking this right seriously? I used to work with an Asian sister who told me she doesn’t vote because, “My vote doesn’t count. I’m just a skinny little yellow woman from Minnesota. Besides the Electoral College decides who will be president and I have never been to college.”
I gave her the hand, and replied, “Hold up. Skinny, fat, short, tall women from Minnesota and the other states fought the establishment so you could vote. Now you have dismissed their sweat, blood and tears by dismissing your right to vote.” I reminded her that women didn’t have the right to vote until the 1920 presidential election when the 19th Amendment was passed.
The first country to give women the vote in national elections was the Isle of Man in 1881. Does anyone even know where the Isle of Man is? The first superpower nation to give women the vote in national elections was New Zealand in 1893. The first major country to give women the right to stand for election, as well as to vote, was Australia in 1902.
American women have outvoted men in every election since 1964, but according to my personal experience, young women are the least registered population in the United States. I Googled and Yahooed articles trying to find out how many women of color are voting, but couldn’t find anything. There were opinion articles about women of color and whom they would vote for during the primaries — Clinton or Obama. Are there so few women of color voting, and the establishment thinks we are not a voting force, so that we are disregarded in research? I am unsure. All I know is that with my friends and family, I see more Caucasian women than women of color voting.
The other big excuse I hear about women of color not voting is that by voting they will be a part of the establishment and lose street credibility. This is the same excuse I hear from women not wanting a higher education degree. I can’t even begin to express how upset I am about this lame line of logic.
The possibility of hope
I think the solution is for women of color to see more people who look like themselves in leadership positions in society — women of color as doctors, teachers and judges. Then maybe they can see that women who look like them can also be president. When they see the possibility and hope, they will vote.
I always had hope that I would vote even when I was a little girl learning English in ESL class and watching “Sesame Street.” In 1992 after I voted for Ross Perot, I thanked women who marched and protested, the great spirit of heaven and my ancestors for giving me the gift of voting.
Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. She is a poet, playwright and community activist. This article originally was published in the Minnesota Women’s Press.