07/22/2010 07:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

California's Nurses and Women Take on Billionaire CEO Meg Whitman

For some who take our most basic rights for granted, it may be hard to imagine that for nearly 150 years in our republic, American women were denied the right to vote. After decades of struggle, that included protest marches, arrests, physical attacks, verbal abuse, harassment and retaliation against women for advocating suffrage, Congress finally acted, passing the 19th Amendment, which became law on August 26, 1920.

The California Nurses Association will honor that tradition with a unique celebration marking the 90th anniversary on August 26 in Sacramento, Calif. We'll be marching around the West Steps of the Capitol from 4 to 6 p.m., joined by women and men from across the state. Please join us.

We will also highlight the disgrace of a billionaire, who happens to be female, who has the audacity to run for the highest office in California after having squandered the opportunity to vote for much of her adult life.

After a scathing report on her shoddy voting record in the Sacramento Bee last fall, Whitman went on Fox News to concede that "I voted in the 1984 election in California. I remember it clearly."

In another interview, among the few she does, Whitman acknowledged, "I was not as engaged in the political process as I should have been. I was doing lots of other things" such as "building companies" like eBay where among other priorities she laid off scores of employees and outsourced 40 percent of the work overseas.

And now she is finally voting this year, so she can vote for herself.

Nor is she validating her credentials as a woman who could lead a unified California, but instead cynically exploiting her wealth to own the airways and denounce any opposition to her royal privilege with pledges to spend up to $180 million out of her own purse by November.

The absurdity does not end there. A central plank of her campaign is to slash 40,000 public service jobs, a majority of them held by working women, and further cut the social safety net, which will also disproportionately affect those most in need of social services, single mothers.

And yet another badge of honor is her treatment of women employees as a corporate CEO, including the massive job cuts and the now notorious pushing incident of a subordinate woman to whom Whitman had to pay a settlement of $200,000 after an altercation about which Whitman is still not telling the full story.

Not exactly the model for women on this historic anniversary year.

Contrast that record with the struggles of women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chatman Catt, Alice Paul, and so many others who were jailed, beaten, spit at, threatened, and yet defied it all in working day after day and year after year for the simple, yet powerful, right of women to exercise their franchise.

And who linked the fight for suffrage to other progressive causes. In a 1912 speech, Rose Schneiderman, suffragist and trade union leader, mocked those who opposed suffrage as un-lady like. "Surely these women won't lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. There is no harder contest than the contest for bread."

Nurses were prominent in the suffrage drive, as they were in other democratic , social justice, and progressive movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. It makes sense.

As early pioneers in nursing were struggling with mostly male hospital administrators and doctors to establish the professional recognition and accreditation of nursing, and win improvements in nurses' professional standards, compensation, and working conditions, so too were many of these same RN leaders in the forefront of movements for unions, public health, social welfare, and many other causes.

Consider Lillian Wald. A public health nurse and one of the most noted social reformers of the early 20th century, Wald opened the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City to provide healthcare and other services to immigrant women and other poor residents. She was also a founder of the Women's Trade Union League at a time when most unions were closed to women, and an outspoken peace activist, and suffragist.

In her 1915 book, "The House on Henry Street," Wald talks with pride about a famous suffrage march she helped lead in New York City in 1913 with the Henry Street banner "with its symbol of universal brotherhood" and a "goodly company carrying flags with the suffrage demand in ten languages."

Helping Wald organize that contingent was her close friend Lavinia Dock, another public health nurse one of the foremost nurse writers and educators of her era, and a major suffrage activist. Dock was arrested for trying to vote in 1896, was among 13 women who made a 13-day "suffrage hike" from New York City to Albany in 1912, and a frequent pamphleteer for suffrage.

By 1917, Dock was in Washington working with noted suffragist Alice Paul where she led the first suffrage pickets from the National Women's Party headquarters to the White House and was jailed three times for participation in suffrage protests.

In an interview years later Paul recalled one of the most famous suffrage marches in Washington that caused a sensation by coinciding and disrupting the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. "One of the largest and loveliest sections was made up of uniformed nurses. It was very impressive," said Paul.

Nurses, marching and singing for their rights, and justice for all. It's a proud tradition, one that Whitman has abused, but one we will celebrate August 26 once again.