By Anjali Bhatt on August 18, 2016
August 18th, 1920: a date that holds great significance in the history of our country and our Constitution. On this day 96 years ago, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, and as the 36th state to do so, effectively signed the Amendment into the Constitution, and thus, law.
So what is the 19th Amendment, and what led to its signature on this historic day? The 19th Amendment grants women the right to vote, or more specifically, denotes that voting rights cannot be denied on the basis of sex. The fight for women’s suffrage began far before a constitutional amendment was presented to Congress - even before the Civil War that would result in a slew of amendments relating to human rights. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention gathered over 200 men and women in a concentrated effort to bring attention to the plight of women in a patriarchal American society. The two-day Convention was brought on by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, feminists who had attempted to speak on the floor of an anti-slavery convention, but were denied on basis of their womanhood. This slight made them realize that African-Americans and women were both marginalized in the eyes of the law, and could work on women’s rights and African-American rights concurrently. The Convention prompted the Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence that levied grievances against American men. This document served as an essential element to the women’s suffrage movement for decades to come.
The fight for women’s suffrage was temporarily put on hold as the Civil War gripped the nation, with many suffragists and feminists doubling as abolitionists. As the country rebuilt following the war, the Reconstruction Amendments began to take form, outlawing slavery and granting people of color the right to vote. Suffragists recognized these amendments, especially the 15th Amendment of 1870, as an opportunity to push for universal suffrage, but ultimately failed in getting an amendment relating to the enfranchisement of women included in the proceedings for the time being.
This setback only redoubled the efforts of suffragists nationwide. Women all over the country engaged in massive nonviolent campaigns to gain suffrage-- protests and rallies, speeches and movements, newspaper and journal publications, and more. In 1878, suffragists convinced Senator Sargent of California to propose a constitutional amendment to Congress regarding universal suffrage. The amendment was quickly buried in Congressional proceedings, and was not voted on for 41 years. In the meantime, however, the fight for women’s suffrage was furthering-- the territory of Wyoming had allowed women to vote, and was admitted as a state in 1890, becoming the first state with women’s suffrage. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party platform officially embraced women’s voting rights. It was time for the nation to move forward as well.
Finally, in 1919, the Senate reached the two-thirds vote needed to move the amendment to ratification by the states. By the end of the year, 22 states had ratified the amendment, and on August 18th, 1920, the vote came down to Tennessee to be the 36th and final state. The 24-year-old State Assemblymember Harry Burn had the deciding vote, and following advice from his mother, he voted in favor of the 19th Amendment. Women had won the right to vote.
This is not to say, however, that the fight for women’s rights ended there. As the 19th Amendment came into effect nationwide, states then enacted measures to restrict women’s enfranchisement, especially African-American women. Voter intimidation tactics, literacy tests, and other voter suppression techniques were employed by states, especially in the South, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The next step for women’s rights is increasing the number of women that are elected to office. In this regard, the United States is doing rather dismally. Only 20% of the US Senate and 19% of the US House of Representatives are women, leaving the US ranking 95th in the world in terms of gender parity of elected seats. In the 96 years since women have won the right to vote, the success of women in office leaves a lot to be desired. Twenty-three states have never had a woman governor, and women make up less than a quarter of state legislatures across the country. Women are half the population of the United States, yet are severely underrepresented at every level of government.
The passage of the 19th Amendment was a significant milestone in the fight for women’s equality in the United States and equal voting rights are the first step to a more representative government. Nearly 100 years later, there are other reforms that do not require a constitutional amendment to increase the number of women in politics.
Representation2020’s State of Women’s Representation Report outlines the many different ways more women can be present in policy-making decisions. One such approach is through the recruitment and support of women who want to run for office but are unsure of where to start, or require specific assistance. Programs such as Running Start embody this ideal, helping young women get the strong foundation they need to run to become effective members of decision-making bodies. More broadly, structural components throughout the electoral system could be reformed to be more inclusive of women and other minorities. Representation2020’s Women Winning strategy outlines the most effective reforms we could use to elect the US House of Representatives as well as members of state legislatures - multi-winner districts with fair representation voting systems. These systems allow for a greater range of diversity and studies have shown that multi-winner districts elect more women than single-winner districts, while also discouraging negative campaigning, providing voters with more choice, and preventing “vote-splitting,” as exemplified by FairVote’s Ranked Choice Voting research. Another initiative to ensure fair representation of women in elected office is through political parties. Political parties play a huge role in supporting, financing, and otherwise aiding candidates before, during, and after their elections. There are multiple ways political parties can increase the number of women they field in elections, including gender parity task forces, internal accountability, and setting goals and incentives to increase women’s recruitment. We need to promote structural changes within our parties and in our election systems to increase the number of women that run, win, and serve at all levels of government.
As we near the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, it is important to remember that there are many milestones left to surpass to achieve women’s political equality. Constitutional amendments are not necessary to continue moving forward in the fight for women’s rights and representation, but the groundwork laid by the 19th Amendment remains a cornerstone for women across the country as we work towards a more perfect union.
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