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Suffering for Suffrage, 90 Years Since

I have a younger brother, so as a little girl, I was the boss. The authority I exerted was based on age and size, so it never occurred to me that gender could be an influencing factor. I think it was actually School House Rock or Mary Poppins that taught me women had to fight for the right to vote. This seemed as absurd to me as dancing cartoon penguins. (Although I do love dancing cartoon penguins.) Modern American feminism has it’s eyes on sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and the beauty bias, among other important issues, but we shouldn’t forget the battle of our foremothers in the last century.

Today marks the 90th anniversary of Tennessee’s (one-vote margin!) ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This was a huge victory for suffragettes after more than 70 years of struggle, but it did not actually endow all women with the ability to go to the polls, cast their vote, and participate in the democratic process. To say that after 1920 American women could vote would be too easy.

What the 19th (mostly) allowed was for wealthy, white women of status (with supportive husbands or fathers) to vote legally. Aside from the stigma attached to women’s suffrage, a number of other obstacles discouraged participation, as the Amendment did not magically wipe out the pervasive gender, class, and economic discrimination of the time. States’ poll taxes, for instance, frequently disqualified many white women and all but prevented black women from voting. In the 1937 case Breedlove v. Suttles, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s poll tax, effectively denying all African Americans the right to vote, and by 1940 still only 3% of all eligible African Americans were registered.

The battle for truly equal suffrage raged on for decades after, but the Nineteenth Amendment was still a groundbreaking and important step down a long road. Below you will find a short history of the Amendment, as excerpted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, edited by Bonnie G. Smith    –Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor

Nineteenth Amendment

by Ellen Carol DuBois

A woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first proposed by the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. After the defeat of the South and the abolition of slavery, woman suffragists expected the Constitution to be revised to enfranchise all citizens, without respect to race or sex, but this was not to be. The wording of the woman suffrage amendment they proposed—“the right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”—followed that of the Fifteenth Amendment in carefully specifying the scope of federal power to prohibit disfranchisement by sex at the state level (rather than actively to enfranchise women). This constitutional proposal was first introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1878 by Aaron Sargent (1827–1887), senator from California. The indefatigable Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) submitted petitions on its behalf signed by 300,000 women. It took another six years before the Senate voted on the bill, only to reject it.

For thirty years, the woman suffrage amendment bill was not voted on again by either house of Congress. In the 1890s, the insurgent Populist movement secured woman suffrage amendments in the state constitutions of Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896). In the 1910s, a second wave of political reform brought woman suffrage into the state constitutions of California (1911) and Washington (1910). These successful state campaigns fed into a revival of the movement for a federal amendment because, as more women had the right to vote, they exerted political pressure at the national level to support an amendment to the federal constitution, and because, as more state campaigns were lost than won, this approach to full enfranchisement was inherently limited.

The revived campaign for an amendment to the federal constitution was also influenced by developments in Great Britain, where a new type of woman suffrage movement, devoted to civil disobedience, political spectacle, and confrontation with male politicians, inspired young U.S. suffragists. Soon expelled from the mainstream U.S. suffrage organization for their confrontational methods, these militants, led by Alice Paul (1885–1977), formed their own organization. Calling themselves the Congressional Union, in 1914 the militant group succeeded in bringing the woman suffrage bill before the full U.S. Senate. When they lost, they applied the British principle of holding the party in power responsible for parliamentary defeat and went on the offensive against President Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party.

Through 1916 , the Congressional Union, renaming itself the National Woman’s Party, devoted itself to convincing women in states with their own woman suffrage provisions to vote against Democratic candidates. However, Wilson, promising to keep the United States out of the European war, was reelected in 1916 . Months into his second administration, Wilson reversed course and brought the United States into the war on the side of England and France. The suffrage militants refused to fall in line behind wartime mobilization, and, when they pressed their anti-Wilson campaign, were attacked as traitors. Militant activists relished the confrontation, and when arrested for picketing the White House in the summer and fall of 1917 , declared themselves political prisoners and engaged in a hunger strike.

Meanwhile the mainstream suffrage organization lobbied Congress and the president and demonstrated its support for the war effort. While antagonism between the two suffrage wings was intense, their different approaches reinforced each other and moved the woman suffrage amendment forward. In January 1918 , the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill without a vote to spare. Calculating that women voters would provide domestic support for his plans for postwar peace, Wilson finally agreed to support the amendment. Even so it took another year and a half before the U.S. Senate, where southern Democrats firmly in favor of “states rights” resisted any further federal involvement in voting rights, voted to approve the bill. The road to Constitutional amendment in the United States is extremely steep, and the final phase was a difficult campaign to win ratification by the legislatures of three-quarters of the states. Although opposition in the South was strong, Tennessee became the final state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment on 18 August 1920 .

Despite the fact that U.S. suffragists had been pushing for the right to vote for a half century, the United States was not the first country to grant women full, unqualified voting rights at the national level. More than a dozen countries, including Russia, Germany, Finland, Australia, and Poland, had already taken this move. Moreover, there were hidden limits to the power of the Nineteenth Amendment. Congress never passed legislation to enforce the amendment, even though African American women ran into serious opposition when they tried to vote. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Nineteenth Amendment did not cover American colonies; separate campaigns, reaching into the 1930s, were waged in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to enfranchise women there.

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