The U.S. women’s suffrage movement that formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 reached its apotheosis in the halls of Congress on this day in 1920: The Senate joined the House in approving the Nineteenth Amendment, securing the right to vote regardless of gender. Thus, this day marks the final victory in a legal challenge that lasted seven decades.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention) and Susan B. Anthony wrote the amendment in 1878. They waited as the Senate ignored it and then, after stalling for nine years, rejected it. They re-introduced it in 1914, 1915, 1918, and early 1919; each time Congress voted it down. Meanwhile, however, Mary Chapman Catt was working another angle, convincing state legislatures to institute women’s suffrage laws. As a result, fifteen states passed such laws, priming the pump of support for the Constitutional Amendment.
The impact of this amendment can hardly be measured. It fully enfranchised women whose fathers and brothers and husbands could vote. It countenanced women’s desire to practice democracy beyond the domestic sphere. It gave women direct, rather than symbolic, access to representational government, the right to be represented and to represent themselves, opening opportunity for female leadership at all levels.
For many women the Nineteenth Amendment did not immediately lead to access to a ballot. Most black women — and men — still could not vote because, despite the Fifteenth and now Nineteenth Amendments, their rights were suppressed by Jim Crow laws. Nevertheless, as a landmark legal victory, the Nineteenth Amendment wedged a foot in the door of universal suffrage.
Encouragement from Exemplars: The seven decades of legal challenges and protests it took for women to secure the right to vote are a reminder not only that the arc of history is long, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also that it sometimes does not seem to bend towards justice. The struggle requires faith.
Name some issues you care about that seem to be stymied by overpowering opposition. Nurture yourself with the example of the suffragettes, finding encouragement in their tenacity and ultimate triumph.
Rock the Vote: Watch this Schoolhouse Rock video and take its joyous democratic energy out into the streets. Register to vote (if you haven't already), and check that you are registered in the proper district. Encourage others to do the same.