Born the Year Women Won the Vote, She's Never Missed an Election

Los Angeles-based voting rights advocate Rita Barschak, 100, poses with family.  (Courtesy of the League of Women Voters)

The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s constitutional right to vote in the United States, was celebrated on Aug. 18, 2020. So we’re asking politically engaged women in our community to share their personal voting stories with you.

Today: Rita Barschak, a 100-year-old voting rights advocate.

Women played a pivotal role in the 1920 presidential election, swinging the vote from the Democrats — who had traditionally been resistant to the suffrage movement — to the Republicans.

Warren Harding was elected president. And that very same year, Rita Barschak was born.

"I was born the year women got to vote!" Barschak told KQED, with a chuckle from the phone by her bedside in Los Angeles.

At 100 years old, Barschak said she’s been a voting rights advocate for her entire adult life and has never missed an election.

"Without voting, we can't get anywhere," she said.

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This year, for the first time since she became old enough to vote, Barschak said she plans to vote by mail because she's currently bedridden. "I have always wanted to go vote in person and see how many people were there and what was going on," Barschak said.

She was born into a working-class family in Hartford, Connecticut.

"One of my siblings went to college on scholarships," Barschak said. "But my mother and father couldn't afford to send me to college."

Her parents came to the U.S. as immigrants from Europe in their teenage years. Her Russian-born mother, whom Barschak said could barely read or write and never became a U.S. citizen, bore five children, died in her late 40s and never voted in an election.

Her Austrian-born father, however, was self-educated, had U.S. citizenship and exercised his right to vote. Barschak said her dad served in the U.S. army before he got married, then worked as an insurance agent and eventually as a master mechanic. She said he had strong opinions.

"In those days there was a speaker on the radio called Father Coughlin and he was very, very anti-Semitic," Barschak said of the Hitler and Mussolini-sympathizing celebrity Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. "And my father used to turn him on every Sunday morning and yell back at him."

After high school, Rita married a former classmate, Richard Barschak, upon his return from veterinary school. The couple moved to Detroit, then to Southern California in 1945.

Over the course of her long life, Barschak has rallied public support for a bunch of causes in L.A. as a member of the League of Women Voters, which she joined not long after moving to California.

She’s particularly proud of her efforts to push through a tax in the early 1980s to improve and expand L.A.’s public transit system in underserved neighborhoods.

"I became a spokesperson because I was young, I was attractive and they wanted me to be the face," she said. "And we got that tax passed."

19th Amendment Centennial

Barschak said she has always prided herself on having a strong voice as a woman. Exercising her right to vote is an important part of that. But she said it’s taken women a long time to assert themselves at the ballot box.

Many white women of her generation were stuck at home being housewives. Barschak said they didn’t feel smart enough to make their own decisions.

"I think a lot of women turned to their husbands and said, 'How shall I vote?' And that continued for a long, long time," she said.

Barschak said women have much more confidence in their own opinions today. She’s seeing many women breaking through the glass ceiling and is especially excited about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s pick for running mate in the November election, Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

"We're going to have a Black vice president if Biden is elected," she said. "Look how far that has come in my lifetime!"

But, she said, barriers to the ballot box still exist for many, particularly for immigrants and people of color.

"We have come far," Barschak said. "But so not far enough."

Now share your story with us

Use the box below to tell us about the first time you voted. We'd love to potentially feature your experience on KQED: