Today, Aug. 26, we celebrate Women’s Equality Day. It was this date in 1920 that Congress certified the 19th Amendment and added it to the Constitution. On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee was the last state to ratify the amendment.
Should we still celebrate as primarily white women gained the right to vote? Yes. Actually, in the first few years, the vote was open to all women, and many women of color fought hard for passage of the 19th Amendment. The 15th Amendment, granting African American men the right to vote, was passed in 1870.
Soon, however, impediments were put into the path of voting for many Americans. Having the vote in the United States has always been an evolution as the right to vote was originally only granted to white male landowners. Poll taxes, reading tests and other challenges made it difficult for many to vote throughout the years.
But the 19th Amendment was a major victory for women. We first heard women asking for the vote in England in the 1700s. American women were listening.
Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “remember the ladies” when working on the U.S. Constitution. Sadly, we didn’t make it there.
The real movement began to emerge during the calls to end slavery in the United States. Women wanted to participate in abolition meetings and make their voices heard. However, the fellas weren’t interested in what the ladies had to say.
Imagine your burning passion for a cause and being told to quiet down because nice ladies should not be engaged in these topics of the day. It was just downright improper.
Sarah Grimke is one of our first recorded American feminists. She was raised on a plantation in South Carolina and saw firsthand the treatment of slaves. Her father allowed her to learn to read and she studied her brother’s text and law books. Eventually, she fled the plantation and headed north to share her first-hand stories. She became a Quaker and attended many abolitionist meetings to give her first-hand account of slavery. Yet, men did not want her to speak. For this, she began calling for women to have more equality in the vote, challenging core religious principles that held women back and much more.
In 1848, 300 mostly white women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for a convention to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” They produced The Sentiments as a document. It called for women to manage their own money, have access to education and jobs, and the abolition of slavery. The most controversial plank was requesting the right to vote. In fact, on the first vote, this plank failed. It took a speech by Frederick Douglass to convince the attendees to pursue this path. He knew that if women voted, it would help end slavery sooner. The resolution passed by one vote.
Alas, little was made of the Sentiments by those in power. Slavery ended (technically), the 15th Amendment passed, and nothing happened for women.
Sojourner Truth was a former slave (who sued to gain her freedom under a states rights issue) and became an ardent feminist. She crafted a speech called “Ain’t I a Woman?” that she delivered around the country.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull sought the office of president even though she did not have the right to vote for herself. There are many unsung sheroes of the suffrage movement.
Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller were avid suffragists. Ida B. Wells was a journalist and a significant suffragist, but her heart issue was ending lynchings. Throughout the years, many women fought for the right to vote.
Alice Paul is one of the least known suffragists but may have had more impact than some. She rebelled against the state-by-state campaign of most national women’s groups and fought for the passage of a Congressional Amendment.
The National Woman Suffrage Association, under Paul’s leadership, led the first-ever protest march in Washington D.C. The marchers protested with signs outside the White House and lobbied members of Congress. Ultimately, they were arrested for their White House protests under the guise of disrupting traffic. In jail, Paul led a hunger strike that finally gained the attention of then President Woodrow Wilson. He could no longer avoid the fight for women’s vote.
Congress finally passed an amendment, and it was ratified 100 years ago today. We recognize that it took many years for all women to have the right to vote. In fact, even today there are many impediments to casting a ballot for all Americans. More so this year with a pandemic present.
Yet, let’s all give pause and a shoutout to those women who made a difference as early as 170 years ago. Thank you for striving, working, going to jail, starving and more so that we can vote today!
Nancy Sims is a parent, public relations professional, professor (lecturer) and a pundit. She has been teaching Women in Politics for nearly 20 years at the University of Houston.