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We've come a long way baby, right?

Staff Writer | April 5, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - It hasn't been that long since women in the U.S. faced arrest if they tried to cast a ballot in most government elections.

In 1920, the Constitution was amended, assuring voting rights for all American women. The change came after decades of struggle - suffragist lobbying, petitions, picketing and other acts of civil disobedience.

"What's kind of interesting is that Idaho was one of the first states to grant women the right to vote," said Kathy Canfield-Davis, assistant professor in the educational leadership program at the University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene.

The Gem State gave voting privileges to females in 1896, and was the fourth state to do so following Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

Western states and territories led the way in the women's suffrage movement.

"That could be because women that moved West were very independent and very strong," Canfield-Davis said.

She also surmised that it might have been used as an early economic development tool to draw more women out West.

Canfield-Davis is co-author of a University of Idaho study that reflects on the meaning of the 19th Amendment.

The research, completed with colleagues Penny Tenuto, Russ Joki and Erik Hadley, examines the significance of the Amendment's passage in the lives of female leaders in Idaho today, nine decades later.

The group interviewed 15 women in leadership positions from throughout the state, a mix of school superintendents, school board members, mayors, legislators and judges.

"None felt like their gender prohibited them from being where they wanted to be," Canfield-Davis said.

The interviewees generally acknowledged that while there is still a system in place that favors male dominance, they have learned to work within it, support it and get ahead.

"They viewed gender discrimination as more of a nuisance than a barrier," Canfield-Davis said.

In order to succeed, the majority said they had to have clear goals, work hard, secure a good education and be persistent.

The study participants identified with role models bearing common characteristics - tenacity, stubbornness and courage.

Amelia Earhart was named most frequently, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks also receiving several nods.

The most common form of inequity the women perceived having experienced at some point was employment discrimination.

"They all felt that the 19th Amendment was very important, that it really opened doors for all women," Canfield-Davis said.

Idaho was at the forefront of women's rights history again in the early 70s with a Supreme Court case, Reed v. Reed.

In 1971, Idaho's Domicile Rule read: "The husband is the head of the family. He may choose any reasonable place or mode of living and the wife must conform thereto."

There was also an Idaho Statute, "As between persons equally entitled to administer a decedent's estate, 'males must be preferred to females.'"

Reed v. Reed changed all that.

"This was kind of a landmark decision for women's rights," Canfield-Davis said.

Sally Reed wanted to be executor of her deceased teenage son's estate, but the lower courts would not allow it, deeming her ex-husband in charge.

It was eventually argued and won in the Supreme Court as a 14th Amendment federal civil rights case.

Reed v. Reed was the first equal protection case to prohibit discrimination based on gender.

Canfield-Davis, who served as superintendent of the Post Falls School District for seven years in the late 80s and early 90s, recalls being the only female superintendent in the region for a few of those years.

"I wanted to deny that gender had any impact on anything," Canfield-Davis said. "It struck me that there may be women who still feel like that today."

The researchers hope, Canfield-Davis said, that their final findings shed light on any barriers to women's equality that might still exist, and encourage dialogue that will allow women to keep moving forward.

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