Written by Kathryn Smithyman
August 26th is designated as Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, granting women the right to vote. Proposed by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) in 1971 and passed by Congress in 1973, the commemoration took three years to pass, a blink of an eye in comparison to the 42 years the Woman Suffrage Movement struggled to gain the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment was first brought before Congress in 1878 but was not ratified until August 18th, 1920. Constitutional amendments require a Congressional proposal with a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. Once achieved, it must be ratified by the state legislatures of ¾ of the U.S. States. It is an arduous process. Of the 11,000 amendments introduced since 1789, only 27 of them have been ratified. Although Congress passed the Amendment in June of 1919, it would be another year until it could be ratified by 36 of the 48 states, where it met fierce opposition in some areas.
The 42-year journey spanned generations of American women from all walks of life and is a storied history of triumphs and setbacks. It began with a convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in July of 1848, which produced the Declaration of Sentiments. Women demanded more workforce opportunities, the right to self-government and equal representation, and to manage their finances and property. It quickly became apparent that none of this could be accomplished without the right to vote, and so began the Woman Suffrage Movement.
Suffrage organizations across the country used varied approaches to achieve this goal. Some began by protesting the recently adopted 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote but denied it to women. Others focused on securing voting rights at the state and local levels. The grassroots movement was successful in obtaining suffrage in nine states by 1912. The women gained momentum with a march on Washington in 1913, and by 1916 the divided suffrage organizations had united in support of a Constitutional Amendment.
Despite this major success, the NWP attempted and failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment which, in its most recently proposed form, reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” With this ongoing rejection from 1923 to the present day, voting rights remain the only aspect of sexual equality protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Today, it is hard to imagine a time when women were not allowed at the polls. Yet, less than a hundred years ago, discriminatory state voting laws still denied women the right to self-government in certain parts of the country despite the ratification of Nineteen. To remember their struggle is to remind ourselves that lasting change takes time, hard work, resilience, and true grit. This August 26th, let us remember the American Suffragettes with gratitude, and may their dedication and passion for a more just tomorrow inspire us to keep moving forward.