The nationwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment reminds us of an old, familiar lesson about American politics. The achievement of voting rights requires perseverance and energy, effective strategy and organization, moral appeal and political leverage.
It shouldn’t be this way, of course, not in a democracy and certainly not if our nation truly aspires to fulfill the commitment to “equality” and “equal protection,” egalitarian principles exalted in the Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment. But, the human condition, factors of sexism, racism and an appetite for political power, to the exclusion of principles of fairness and decency, require it.
The battle for women’s suffrage, waged since the early 19th Century and championed, at least formally, since the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848, boasted women of exceptional talents, whose names –Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, among others—deserve special prominence in textbooks and political discussions across our nation.
Altruism is seldom a force in American politics. White men, who held state legislative seats, were not interested in sharing power with women. Many, of course, harbored sexist prejudices. Women were not knowledgeable. Women were not rational. Women were too delicate to participate in the hurly-burly, dirty world of politics. Women enjoyed representation through votes cast by their husbands. A woman’s place was in the home; the Creator had assigned them the role of child rearing.
Racism constituted yet another significant obstacle to women’s suffrage. The ratification of the 15th Amendment, which had enfranchised Black men, inspired throughout the South fears of white subjugation. Extending the franchise to Black women would make life far worse, southern legislators warned, because Black women would form a monolithic voting block, rendering whites subordinate to both Black men and women.
In 1873, U.S. Senator A. A. Sargent of California, was persuaded by Susan B. Anthony, in the course of a chance encounter in a railroad box car, to introduce a bill granting women the right to vote. Initially, the bill found little support. Despite the moral power of their cause, suffragists lacked political leverage on a national scale. Members of the Senate, for example, were largely impervious to the appeals of the suffragists; indeed, they were nearly untouchable. The buffer was created by the Constitution, which provided for election of Senators by state legislators--the same lawmakers who rejected the suffragist lobby in their respective states.
That began to change in the last years of the 19th Century, as western states, beginning with Wyoming, extended the franchise to women. The political implications of women’s suffrage in roughly a half-dozen states over the next decade were becoming clear. Women exercising the right to vote went to work on behalf of their sisters, lobbying representatives of other states, as well as members of Congress, to embrace suffrage for women. Their organizational skills, energy and dedication were impressive. The handwriting was on the wall.
The ratification of the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of US Senators, part of the Progressive Period’s emphasis on democratic values and practices, provided an unanticipated boost for women’s suffrage. Suddenly, candidates for the Senate, including incumbents, were forced to confront the implications of their positions on women’s suffrage for when women gained the right to vote, they did not want to find themselves on the wrong side of the issue. After ratification of the Direct Election Amendment, senators had to take account of the views of voters across the state, not merely those of a few chums and cronies in the state capital.
The suffragists also found powerful leverage in the cause and rhetoric of World War I, which President Woodrow Wilson characterized as “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” If Americans were fighting for democracy throughout the world, why not fight for it at home? How could America deny the franchise to 50 percent of its population and assert its status as a democratic nation? The citizenry required consistency in word and deed. Caught in the cross-fire of wartime rhetoric and ideals, opposition to the 19th Amendment began to melt away.
The pursuit of gender equality in America continues. Passage of the 19th Amendment represented a milestone, some 200 years in the making. Its achievement reminds us of the need for perseverance in fighting for voting rights—for all Americans. Today, evidence of their fragility surrounds us.
Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.