Give women votes! America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment
This week America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. How women's suffrage changed America, and why some human rights activists have mixed feelings on the matter.
August 18th marked the day in 1920, 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment to the US constitution was ratified. It guaranteed "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." Viewed as a beacon of gender equality in America, its adoption became possible thanks to years of battles waged by American suffragists. These women risked their reputations and wellbeing to be heard by lawmakers and politicians, who were exclusively men. Suffragists insisted on what they believed were their rights as citizens, questioned their subordinate role in society, looked to improve their rights in marriage and get more opportunities outside the family. And, of course, they insisted on women's right to cast their vote just like men did.
This year President Donald Trump decided to commemorate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment with a symbolic gesture of posthumously pardoning Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the women's suffrage movement, who was arrested for illegally voting in 1872.
She cast a vote in the presidential elections for Ulysses S. Grant in her home town of Rochester, New York. She urged 15 women to do the same after taking a young clerk into putting their names on the voters' list, but being an instigator; she was the one to suffer the consequences. She was convicted for "knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully" voting and was ordered to pay a $100 fine. At the time, the incident got extensive coverage in the national press, bringing women's suffrage into the spotlight. But it took the American suffragists almost half a century to accomplish their goal. In 1878, a Women's Suffrage Amendment was proposed by Congress but failed to receive support. When Congress finally took the first vote for women's suffrage in 1887, it didn't pass the Senate.
Quite a few countries had enabled women to vote before the United States did, New Zealand being the first country where women could vote since 1893, and Finland being the first European country to implement both the right to vote and the right to be elected in 1906. Fifteen states in America were ahead of the curve and the federal legislation, with Wyoming introducing universal suffrage as early as 1890. However, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, some 27 million women all across the country became eligible to vote. Despite being an incredible victory, it still left many non-white women - African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, and Asian Americans – without access to the ballot.
Logically, upon the enactment of the 15th Amendment that granted non-white men the right to vote, the adoption of the 19th Amendment would automatically extend the right to women of color. However, many states employed voter suppression tactics, like literacy tests, poll taxes (annual fees that citizens had to pay in advance of voting), property clauses. Similar to those used against black male voters on the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The hindrances saw the mass disenfranchisement of women. Hence, many black women and women of color weren't able to fully participate in the political process and exercise their constitutional right until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
These days the greatest criticism leveled at the American suffrage movement – and it has become especially relevant in the current political climate – is for having heralded the right to vote for white upper- and middle-class women only. The consequence of which left out those who were Black, Native American, Asian, and Latina for decades after that. To achieve its principal goal, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1890 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others, resorted to a so-called "Southern strategy" that pushed for a bargain: to secured the much-needed support of white Southern women and, importantly, their husbands and fathers, it marginalized Black women and their concerns.
Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, explains that by the late 1800s, the white-led suffrage movement had become openly racist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose husband, by the way, was a prominent abolitionist, opposed the 15th Amendment that would give Black men and other men of color the vote before white women. She is quoted on saying that the 15th Amendment granted the franchise to "Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book…" Historians of the women's movement are, in turn, criticized for erasing women of color, who were instrumental in fighting for voting rights and exercising political power, out of their books. In other words, the 19th Amendment left some unfinished business of women's suffrage, even though white middle-class women did gain access to the ballot.
A century after women's suffrage, the fight for women's rights in America isn't over. Although these days more women vote than men (by nearly 10 million, as demonstrated in the 2016 elections), and in the current election seasons six women candidates competed for a Democratic nomination, the campaign for political equality continues. Believe it or not, just four years ago during the 2016 presidential campaign, a peculiar hashtag #repealthe19th popped up on twitter. Although it was more often used by those who condemned the misogynist concept behind it, it first appeared in response to a study showing Donald Trump would win if ONLY men voted. Some of his staunch supporters got so overexcited by the prospect that the hashtag #repealthe19th went viral. With Hillary Clinton running against Trump, some women, including the current Democrat Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, took it as a personal offense.
In the coming US presidential election, women's votes will play a significant, if not decisive role. But the distance between the right to vote and the act of voting may prove considerable. In the remaining months, the fight for women's votes will be tougher than ever, and we'll likely see both candidates extensively trying to capitalize on their support of women's rights.