95 Years Ago Women Gained the Vote (shorter version published in The Day newspaper August 26, 2015)
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was certified and for the first time in our history, American women had the right to vote.
Unfortunately, 95 years later many Americans, including many among the 54 per cent of potential voters who are women, don’t bother voting. We are witnessing so much frustration and anger at our political system. Many Americans feel that the system is stacked against them, that their lives don’t matter in the process and so their vote won’t make a difference and they will not go to the polls.
Compared to other western democracies, the U.S. has an alarmingly low rate of voter participation. In national elections for the Presidency every 4 years, we don’t even reach an average participation rate of 70% of registered voters. In the off years, when we elect state-wide and local leaders, the rate of voting goes down into the 40 per cent range.
Too many Americans remain uninformed about the political, social and economic issues that affect our lives. Our lives are influenced every day by the laws passed by our local and national legislatures and by legal decisions made by our court system. A political discourse that should be informed but respectful, has instead too often turned into bitter and vitriolic partisan shouting, backed up by misinformation, sound-bite propaganda, half-truths and outright lies.
What a sad commentary on the status of our democracy and what an insult to the founding of this nation with its living constitution that has enabled us to march forward with changes that have brought equal rights and liberty to all Americans; from the American Indians to our black citizens, to our women and gay and lesbian citizens. That is the promise of America; that it can expand liberty and equality for all and that we all have a stake in moving forward to make the country better.
Every one of our historic advances in equality took a struggle that took lives, transformed lives and eventually brought our country one step further toward full equality.
The struggle for the women’s right to vote was a massive marathon that began before the Civil War. During our early history, women were denied some of the key rights enjoyed by male citizens. Married women could not own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn. They had no right to the custody of their own children and did not have the right to vote.
In 1848, the movement for women’s rights began to organize at the national level. Reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. In addition to their belief that women should be afforded better opportunities for education and employment, the Seneca Falls delegates (which included former African-American slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass) agreed that American women deserved their own political identities They produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” modeled after the Declaration of Independence which inserted the word “women” into the phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. . .”
The suffrage movement lost momentum with the onset of the Civil War. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the war gave black men the right to vote, but failed to extend the same privilege to American women of any skin color.
In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Stanton formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) with a goal toward passage of a federal constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. Other suffrage groups believed that women’s right to vote could best be gained through amendments to individual state constitutions. In 1869, the Wyoming territory granted all female residents age 21 and older the right to vote. Before 1920, other states granted women the right to vote, but the struggle continued for a national amendment to the Constitution.
In 1886, the U.S. Senate defeated a proposal for an amendment to give women the right to vote. But the turn of the 20th century brought momentum to the movement and new leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul continued the fight. They faced continued opposition, event violent resistance.
On the eve of the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, protestors thronged a massive suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. and hundreds of women were injured. The White house was regularly picketed because President Wilson was opposed to the amendment and many were arrested and served jail time and were mistreated violently in jail.
But by 1918, President Wilson switched his stand and on May 21, 1919, a proposal to approve the Susan B. Anthony Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed in the House and Senate by the 2/3 majority vote required. The amendment was then sent to the states for ratification. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed for 2/3 of the states’ ratification. A 23 year old Representative Harry Burn cast the deciding vote. Although he was personally opposed to the amendment, his mother convinced him to approve it with a famous letter she wrote to him: “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification”. On August 26, 1920, the U.S. Secretary of State certified the amendment.
On November 2, 1920, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time. It took over 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Mississippi was the last to do so, on March 22, 1984.
Now we are entering a crucial period with the 2016 presidential election already the focus of national attention. The direction of the country is at stake, in terms of economic, social, civil rights, health, workers’ rights, reproductive rights, environmental, criminal justice and foreign policy. The make up of the Supreme Court is crucial and can be transformed in the next few years depending on who is elected to the presidency and to the U.S. Senate. Because we are in the age of 24/7 cable news, social media and more diverse outlets for information, the campaigns sometimes feel more like circus entertainments, popularity contests, and shallow shouting matches. It takes an educated citizenry who really care about their precious right to vote to become enlightened and truly knowledgeable about our history and the issues so we can make informed selections of our leaders and the policies they advocate.
Sadly, the right of all Americans to vote is still under challenge today. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 which advanced and protected voting for black Americans who were prevented by overt discrimination at the polls has been partially gutted by the current Supreme Court. Many states are taking advantage of that fact to pass new anti-voter laws which cut back early voting and same day registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds and other provisions. These laws disproprotionaltely discrimlnate against certain classes of people. Many face court challenges, but with no certainty of resolution in time for the 2016 electons.
Although American women have slowly increased their ranks as national and state leaders, America remains among the few democracies that have not elected a woman to highest office. Isn’t it time for us to take our place with Australia, Israel, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Finland, United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Thailand and dozens of other countries by finally electing a woman president?
We still have to keep fighting to exercise and protect the vote and the rights we have won with our blood and treasure. Unfortunately, there are always forces working to chip them away. A vigilent and informed citizenry is the antidote.
Let us protect the vote, take time to vote, and in so doing celebrate the 19th amendment and honor those who fought so hard for it.
Sheila S. Horvitz, Esq.
Attorney and Member
Connecticut Federation of Democratic Women