Geneva America Joyner Thomas was born in a country where women could not participate in the electoral process. On Tuesday, 96 years later, she will cast her vote for that nation’s first major party female presidential nominee.
A lifelong Democrat and Baptist, Thomas was born in Nebo, KY, on May 21, 1920—three months before the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
During an interview last week, she noted, “If it were four years later, I’d have been living at the 100th anniversary” of that historic action.
It was a long road to achieve women’s suffrage. The amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878 by U.S. Sen. Aaron A. Sargent. Forty-one years later, in 1919, Congress approved the amendment, sending it to the states for a vote. Tennessee was the last state to ratify and add the amendment to the Constitution. It survived a legal challenge in 1922 and since then, the women’s rights movement has seen substantive, if slow, progress.
Women have played increasing roles in business, politics, sports and entertainment management, with only the “glass ceiling” of the presidency as yet unattained.
Thomas graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky and was soon married to a federal employee and living in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC. She lived in Falls Church, Vienna and Manassas before moving to Purcellville in 2005. Today, she lives in the Morningside House retirement home in Leesburg, where she has a cozy apartment on the first floor.
Thomas’ middle name “America” probably goes back to her long roots in American history, her son Fred Thomas suspects. She descends on her mother’s side from a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, who helped provide land for the College of William and Mary. “So maybe she intended her to be patriotic,” Fred Thomas said.
Over her long lifetime, she’s seen a lot of history. But she doesn’t see things from a political perspective so much as from a social one.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a plain voter. I haven’t done anything important,” she said.
Fred Thomas says it will be an emotional moment for him when he pushes his wheelchair-bound mother into the polling station on Tuesday. He recalled his mother as having strong views. “She wasn’t a suffragette, but she was my dad’s intellectual equal—and then some—and was not afraid to express it,” he said, noting wryly that his mother was somewhat of an anomaly. “She was independent but she never knew how to drive.”
Strong women run in the family over three generations, as Geneva Thomas raised three powerful daughters. She has six granddaughters and three great-granddaughters, all strong forces, according to her son. While nursing a raspy throat during last week’s interview, Thomas spoke of her pride in her daughter Ellen, who was a lifelong teacher, but chose a second career as a journalist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
When she goes to the polls next week, she’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton. She knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. One thing she does want to see is equality in male and female salaries. She’s opposed to the divisive and negative nature of the campaign—on both sides.
“They’ve chewed each other up,” she said, “and I’m not very proud of it.”
When it’s all over, Thomas hopes things will return to a more peaceful outlook. “We should try to do our best … and get back on track.”